Elements of a Great Short Story

So you’re thinking of self-publishing your own short story. It’s a story that resonates deeply within you that you can’t wait to share with the world. But does it include the four key elements of a great short story it needs to become a successful published work? Palmetto Publishing is here to answer your questions and help mold your ideas into a viable book that readers will purchase and enjoy.

What Makes a Great Short Story

What makes a great short story? There are several factors that contribute to a compelling storyline that is worthy of self-publishing and sharing with the world.

In this article, we’ll break down the four most crucial literary elements of a story for you. Include all of them to ensure that readers won’t be able to put down your book until they’ve finished it.

What Are the Four Elements of a Short Story?

Writing fiction is like putting together a puzzle. So, what four pieces do you need to create a compelling story?

Character

Character development is vital to gripping readers. Fictional characters help us to better understand pieces of ourselves. When a reader picks up your story, you want them to connect with the characters and relate to their struggles.

Strong characters help readers become invested in your narrative. As the plot thickens and twists and turns, readers are intrigued to see how the fate of the characters will unfold.

Love ‘Em or Hate’ Em

Not all characters have to be likable. Many great books and short stories have featured characters that are realistically unlikable. These characters help readers understand the unlikable people in their lives. They can even help people come to terms with their own unlikeable traits.

Whether your character is lovable or challenging, they need to be well-rounded and believably human. It’s harder to empathize with a character who’s all good or all bad.

Writing Relatable Characters

Relatable characters are ones that readers can identify and bond with. The reader can see themselves in the character’s shoes, despite inevitable differences. They care about what happens to the character.

Relatable characters have faults, vulnerabilities, and complexities. They have something they want badly enough to go after it. (You’ll learn about that element in the next section, “Plot.”) They make mistakes and have to deal with the consequences — just like anyone else.

Think about the main character in your short story. Ask yourself what makes them human. What do they want more than anything else?

The words 'short story' picked out on a grungy old typewriter. Macro image.

The Characters You Need

There’s only one “must-have character” for a short story. That’s your protagonist — the main character who drives the action. The reader follows them through the story as if riding on their shoulders.

Your story also needs an antagonist. An antagonist is your protagonist’s opposition. They might be one person. In that case, the antagonist is your story’s other main character.

The antagonist might also be a group of people, a place, or a societal force. A small town with high expectations could be an antagonist. Sometimes, a protagonist has an internal conflict and becomes their own antagonist.

These and any side characters will interact with each other throughout your story. How they progress, transform, and react to changes in the storyline will dictate your story’s value to readers.

Plot

The plot drives the action of the story. It’s the sequence of events that carry the reader from beginning to end.

A plot needs three things:

  • Intention. The main character needs to pursue something and move forward toward that goal. Example: A college graduate wants to get a job and move out of their parent’s house.
  • Obstacles. Something gets in the way of the character getting what they want, and they have to find a solution. Example: The character gets into an accident on the way to a job interview.
  • Cause and effect. A plot advances when something happens, and then something else happens. Example: The accident lands the character in the hospital. They worry they’ll have to stay at home another year, but they meet someone there who offers them a caregiving job.

You can construct any story from these elements.

Developing a Story Arc

Good short stories follow an arc that usually includes some sort of moral lesson, deeper meaning, or powerful truth uncovered as the plot progresses.

The standard story arc has five basic elements, in this order:

  • Introduction and exposition: The reader meets the characters and sees what their normal life looks like. Near the end of this section, introduce the main conflict that will drive the plot.
  • Rising action: The story builds on the primary conflict. Tensions increase and things get more intense.
  • Climax: The character finally faces their biggest obstacle. Something happens that determines how the story will end.
  • Falling action: The outcome of the climax plays out, and the story moves toward a resolution.
  • Resolution: The plot wraps up, and the characters find their “new normal.”

Developing an exciting plot takes practice, but don’t worry — Palmetto Publishing can help ensure your self-published work has a strong plot that sucks in readers.

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Setting

Where does your short story take place? Is it in a faraway land, a fantasy universe, or a quiet town or popular city?

The setting completely changes the story. It determines the context for the plot to unfold and the characters to interact with each other along their journey.

Setting as Character

A popular and smart piece of writing advice is to treat your setting like a character. Make it richly detailed, with a personality that comes through for the reader.

For example, if your story takes place in a home, what does that home mean to the main character? Decide what makes the place unique and what role it plays in the story.

Bringing It to Life: Details and Experiences

Personal details make a setting come to life. Infuse your setting with details that have emotional meaning to your main character.

That emotional connection is what makes a setting detail interesting to the reader. Don’t just describe the main character’s house — write about the one creaky step she had to jump over when sneaking out at night as a teenager.

For practice, think of an important event in your life and where it took place. Describe what you remember seeing and touching. What details were important?

The emotional resonance is the most important part. Give your setting meaning, and it will have meaning for the reader.

Tension

Tension is the question of whether your main character will reach their goal.

Tension is what keeps your self-published short story or novel entertaining and engaging. It inspires readers to keep turning pages and respect your craft as an author.

Remember learning about intention and obstacles as elements of the plot? Both are key to establishing tension.

Other important elements of tension are:

  • High stakes. The more your character wants something and the harder it is to get it, the more tension you’ll build.
  • A plan. What’s your character’s strategy for getting what they want? The plan usually arises naturally from the goal. If it doesn’t, you need the stakes to be higher, so the character has motivation. Readers love watching a character adjust the plan as they face obstacles.
  • Urgency. Build tension by giving your character a deadline. What will they lose if they don’t get there in time?

Every exciting incident will keep tension high. It forces the main character to readjust their plans and increase their sense of urgency.

  • Raise the stakes. Have the character learn something that makes their goal more important or urgent.
  • Let the main character fail. Readers will get bored if your main character succeeds too quickly. Have them fail at least twice before reaching their goal.
  • Add information the character doesn’t know. The reader will be on pins and needles, wondering if the character will figure it out in time.
  • Tease the reader’s interest. Keep some things from your reader, too — just enough to keep them going. Hint at something game-changing, so they keep reading to complete the picture. Example: “After all these years, the sound of high winds still made her heart beat faster.”
  • Add a plot twist. A surprised reader will keep going to find out how the main character will react and how the story will change.

Carefully managing and cultivating tension will make your book more enjoyable to read. It will ensure that readers will make it to the very end of your story as quickly as possible.

Bringing the Elements Together

Palmetto Publishing specializes in helping self-publishing authors marry all of these key literary elements. A book editor from Palmetto can help you create a great short story that will help increase book sales, provide you with royalty fees and ensure your published work gains the accolades it deserves.

Palmetto’s writing and book publishing experts are available to help with all aspects of short story books. From book cover design and layout to book editing, marketing and publishing, Palmetto is here to help you succeed.

Palmetto works with authors of all types, from writers in the business genre to short story creators. Whether you want softcover or hardcover book printing for your short story books, Palmetto is here to get your ideas out into the world.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can turn your amazing ideas into a cohesive book that includes the four pillars of a great story!