What Is A Short Story? By Ginny Swart

Before you enter a Short Story Competition, it might be worthwhile defining exactly what a short story is.

A short story is not a comment on current affairs, an article about collecting clocks or a humorous piece for the back page of a magazine. A short story is just that: a made-up tale about characters where something happens (usually bad), and you hope everything will turn out fine in the end!

Let's see some more formal definitions. According to Wikipedia: "A short story is a piece of fictional writing usually less than 5000 words that contains these basic elements: characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution, climax, dialogue, protagonist, and antagonist."

Allwords.com says: "A short story is a work of prose narrative shorter than a novel, usually concentrating on a specific episode or experience and its effect."

But definitions don't tell you that a short story has to grab your reader's interest from the word go. Nor have you got the luxury of pages of flowery descriptive writing as you would have in a novel.

You have, in this case, 2000 words to bring in your characters, define the setting of your story, and introduce some sort of conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist that will keep the reader dying to know how it all ends.

Does this mean every story has to have a happy ending? Definitely not. But it should reach a satisfactory conclusion so your reader thinks, "That was a good read!".

Your characters have to be real and believable. Your reader needs to relate to them, and whether he likes them or hates them, feels sorry for them or cheers them on, is up to you, the writer.

Dialogue can be very useful. It's rare to find a short story that has no conversation in it. Just telling the reader what your character is doing and thinking can become very monotonous. Conversation makes your story sparkle and come alive. It adds depth to your characters and the reader can understand their feelings through what they say, so it's important to keep your dialogue as natural-sounding as possible.

Send us a story that will grab our attention and make us say: "This one's got something!"

About the author
Ginny Swart tutors the Short Story Writing Course at NZ Writers' College.