The best short stories knock their reader down, in one way or another. Their ends are startling and inevitable and as someone—I can’t remember who it was—once said of poetry, are “a device intended to detonate in the chest.” The following stories have useful lessons in plot, character and theme for writers. Arranged by author’s last name.
This is a fairly perfect and super heartbreaking short story. There’s a character who remains unnamed on purpose in it, the narrator remarks on being unable to say her name, and I admit to having stolen that device once or twice.
Another heart-breaker, this is also a surprisingly funny story, in a way. I love that it’s a “quest” story, in a way, with a very overt goal for the protagonist.
Eisenberg is one of my favorite short story writers—her ear for dialogue is so extraordinary—and this short story is richly layered and complicated and shows her at her best.
“Snakes” in the collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
So much happening in this piece—it operates on many levels, not the least is that it’s about storytelling itself, the act of turning experiences into narratives that can be deployed at parties, and it shows the impact of inter-generational wounds with a kind of specificity and precision that is rare.
David Foster Wallace
I read this a long time ago and it had a huge impact on my writing (as did Eisenberg, above, who I read at the same time). This story is set on the set of the TV show “Jeopardy” and features Alex Trebek, among other “real” people. It’s also very realistic, and blurs the boundary between fiction and nonfiction in a way that I have often strived to do in my writing ever since.
This one will make your hair stand on end, so hold onto your seat. In one way it’s just about a woman who wakes up, has some breakfast, and goes to work at a medical office, where she has a low-level job. She has a lunch break and then goes back to work. It’s extremely upsetting, trust me.
A famous knockout tear-jerker of a story, it’s also got whiplash wit, and Hempel’s fascinating syntax—in her rage toward brevity she arrives at hyper compact phrasing, which is very hard to read aloud. Give it a try.
So many Johnson stories to pick from, but I always love the final scene back at the bar, and the description of the bartender:
“Nurse,” I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm." You had to go down on them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I'll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.
16,000 words long, the story uses it’s length as a craft element, in a way, the vastness has an effect on the reader…we’re lost in a dreamscape that is growing increasingly warped over time, and it’s very repetitive, but in a good way, layered with wonderful motifs and repeating images. The reader, if you’ll notice, never meets any of the neighbors—there’s a tremendous claustrophobia here.
My favorite example of third-person limited, ever. It’s a near-perfect short story in the contemporary American style—but somewhat conventional.
This story is the opposite of McCorkle’s, in a sense. It’s strange and oblique. The reader is always two inches away from being so confused that they want to give up. Ishiguro is a master of holding the reader right there, in that space where we know just enough to be remain interested and invested, but still quite replete with unanswered questions.
Considered Lorrie Moore’s greatest story (at least among the writers I know) this is peak Moore: funny, ruinously sad, harsh, mind-bogglingly witty, and supremely propulsive.
A hilarious story, but also dramatic and finally quite moving. The craft here is perfect. One of my favorite things in the story, craft-wise, is how Packer “crowbars” open the dialogue in the first two scenes. Each scene is just a handful of lines of dialogue spoken over a minute or so, but after each line of dialogue Packer pries open the scene and adds all this lively and interesting summary, so that while the story ostensibly starts with two “scenes” she’s actually heaping information into the reader’s mind.
The movie adaptations is well known, but the story is perfect and does a wonderful job of keeping time as it moves across decades. It’s got a lot of sweep, and is totally devastating at the end.
Salinger fought in all the American battles on the Western Front from D-Day forward. This story is really just two scenes — one with a soldier shortly before D-Day and the second, same soldier after the war has ended. His mind has been shattered by what he’s been through — much as Salinger’s was. The whitespace in the middle of the story between scenes represents the war in a sense; it’s not written about because it is, in a sense, unspeakable. The war scenes have been elided, because the war is so overwhelmingly powerful. The short story’s form and content are tantamount to theme.
Kirstin Valdez Quade
This story has a somewhat muted opening, but you should stay with it. Another that spans time (like Brokeback), it also has amazing motifs and themes and complex character work, an unreliable narrator, and powerfully demonstrates how buried trauma can put poison deep inside of a person, or a family—the long-term effects of not talking about these two girls’ family’s trauma is beautifully and so poignantly shown in this one.
Instead of having a true, traditional plot, the story “ends” halfway through and the climax is achieved when the character changes from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional individual, and achieves complexity — with a dramatic impact on the reader.