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Elements of the Short Story

Updated on May 25, 2017
Dr. Hilary Johnson, Short Story Tutor,  Author Advisor
Dr. Hilary Johnson, Short Story Tutor, Author Advisor
Taking a course in short story writing is important for your success as a writer of fiction
Taking a course in short story writing is important for your success as a writer of fiction | Source

Lesson 2 - The Essentials of the Short Story

Lesson 2 was about analysing the modern short story primarily in magazines for story length, paragraph length, amount of dialogue, number of characters, endings, etc. The exercises asked for 300 words on the essentials in a modern short story as well as an original plot outline summary outline in 300 words. I also sent in my published ‘Blind Among Flowers’ for Hilary’s professional feedback. The story was inspired by a dramatic picture of a tall, dark winged being on a mountaintop.

Blind Among Flowers

I am not blind. It’s only that I must wrap myself in these great wings and hide; hide from the light they shine upon me in the dark hours. Night has no existence for me. Always blinding daylight. Solitary I stand upon this high cliff. Passing strangers assume that I am a creature born of the rock.

Sometimes through my sheer black wings I discern the bright blurs of a thousand lamps burning at my feet. They keep them alight night after night. I can I can but imagine the beauty that surrounds me in this eternal night. I wait for the time when they will forget to keep the fires burning in the crevices of rock. Then. . . ah, then I shall unfurl these dead wings and soar.

I’ll tell you why they imprison me, why I stand as still as the stone beneath my feet. It is my philosophy they fear. Modesty, humility, mediocrity – to them, these are admirable. Not for them the virtues of nobility ad unmarred truth. In their eyes I’m fearsome to behold, towering, black as night. My eyes are empty slits. They cannot see my wings of gold, my fair angelic form.

I am the spirit of Truth. Truth , greater than modesty. The two cannot live together. If I had not told them the truth about the wonders I bring, they would have revered me. I ask, what is the difference between telling the Truth and believing it in silence? Show me a talented man who is unaware of his talent. Man lives happily only with the priceless sense of his own worth. And for this, they made me an outcast and turned me into a monster. But they shall not have my tears.

Hark! It begins to rain. The lamps are beginning to go out one by one. I see villagers running towards the dying flames. Shouts of woe and terror rent the air.

The moment has come. Lo, I unfurl these wings! They hide their stricken faces. They flee, but I have no eyes for them. Flowers bloom in the pure moonlight. Great silver pines wave beneath me like a sea. It does not matter where I go. I shall hide myself in some dark cave. What matters is freedom.

The night is alive with the silken sound of my wings. Gently I descend over a forest wild. How beautiful it is; how comforting the soft earth carpeted with leaves. The rain has abated. I shall walk the few yards to the hamlet set amidst the trees. I search for one who holds Truth as the ultimate virtue. I ask for one, just one who is like me.

The windows are curtained. A mellow light shines through them as if struggling for freedom. The doors are closed upon the night and its strangeness.

I glide from window to window, listening. My heart grows heavy. Not a word of beauty do I hear.

Ah, here is a window with the curtains drawn. The light streams from it in rays upon the trees and mingles with the moonlight. Voices, one raised in anger, the other, soft and trembling, masking contempt like a cat sheathing its claws in velvet, soft yet waiting to spring.

“You think you are the most beautiful woman in the world, Fairaslily. That’s why you spurn all those nice suitors.”

“I do not like their unreasonable attitudes. We have nothing in common. And yes, I am beautiful. Is it a crime to admit it? Is it a crime to revel in my own voice?”

“Enough, Fairaslily. It is no wonder you make a man feel inadequate.”

“Not if he isn’t inadequate, mother. Somewhere I know there is a man for me, a man who will live up to my ideals.”

“Ideals, bah! Ideals are created to be shattered. You must face reality, Fairaslily. Modesty speaks louder than self-praise. “

“My ideals shall remain intact until my dying breath, mother, or what is heaven for? You too are beautiful but you deny it.”

The mother’s voice softens. “Because daughter, I do not desire to sadden the ugly with the truth.”

“Don’t they know the truth, mother?”

“Perhaps they do, but I do not value their hatred.”

“Let them hate. In their hearts they will always confess. Pity not those who refuse to see.”

Her words move me to hope. Is she my soul mate? Is she telling the truth or is it something she just wants to believe?

“sing me a song,” says the mother in a weary voice. The maiden’s voice lifts in a sweet melody. She sings about the stars, the hills, the forest green with promise but her song is tinged with sadness.

“That was beautiful,” says the mother.

“Go to sleep now, mother. I feel like going out for some fresh air. The moon is full tonight.”

How my heart beats as I hide myself behind the flowering jasmine. The door swings open, She steps out and there is a catch in my throat. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, for the Truth shines from her fair face and brings grace to her slender, willowy form. Her soft dark hair ripples past her hips; her small white feet are bare. She reaches out a dainty arm and begins to gather the heady jasmine.

“You are a strange woman, Fairaslily, out alone at this hour.” It is a man’s voice. It startles me. I see him now. Tall and handsome, heavily built, but his aura is dim.

“Oh, Jason you frightened me, says the maiden, letting fall the flowers from her fingers.

“I came to ask if you’d change your mind, Fairaslily.”

“I’ll change my mind if you change, Jason.”

“I am trying, yet to believe in your ideas entails a revolution in mine. It is true that one must believe in oneself, but to admit it. . .”

“You are trapped like the rest, Jason. You know, yet you deny. Tell me, am I not beautiful? Do you not love to hear me sing?”

“You are beautiful, Fairaslily, like your songs but your vanity takes away from your beauty.”

“How can truth take away from beauty, Jason? It only enhances it. You will never change.” Her dark eyes turn away from him. A shudder runs through her.

“I will go, Fairaslily, but I tell you, you will die unmourned, loveless, childless.” His features contort with hate.

“Love, Jason? I love all children. Even if they don’t grow in my womb, they grow in my heart.” Anger flushes her face. Her hands tremble, her eyes glisten with unshed tears. The man turns away and she is a goddess, standing straight, looking up at the moon. Then she looks down at the flowers. Our eyes meet.

“I may be fearsome to behold, Fairaslily, but I believe in you.”

“You are beautiful, stranger,” she whispers. “Your wings blind me with their radiance.”


  1. The essentials of the modern short story

The story today is still about something that happens to someone to change his/her life or way of thinking by even a slight degree.

  1. It should have an interesting beginning to lure the reader into reading all of it. Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ has a classic example of a great beginning.
  2. It must have a plot (what happens).
  3. It must have characters or just one character (to whom it happens). These characters should seem like real people. And often, idiosyncrasies serve to make them appear real.
  4. It must have some sort of conflict to be resolved, some tension, without which, there is no story.
  5. It must have dialogue (some brilliant authors succeed in holding your attention even without dialogue). Dialogue speeds up the story, besides bringing characters to life. It also helps pass on essential information about the character.
  6. It must have a theme (the meaning of what happens).
  7. And of course, it must have a conclusion which appears very soon after the climax of the story to tie up loose ends if any and to state the theme. At times, the story may end at the point of climax, without the conclusion being stated – the surprise ending, which can be very effective.

Plot for Short Story

The story begins with two bodies washed up from the sea. They are Pandora’s parents. But instead of the body f her beloved father, there is just a pile of skin, along with the chain he used to wear around his neck. Pandora is shunned and ridiculed by the villagers (and when the mother was alive, by her too) because of the webs between her toes and fingers. Only her father’s good friend, Papandoulous remains by Pandora’s side and he too, like her, believes that her father is not dead.

Pandora goes fishing n her boat the next day and hauls up a small box. Inside is her father’s journal. Ina it she reads about her father’s love for her and his dislike for her mother, Phrgia who mocks their interest and belief in the Seal Folk. Pandora also discovers that there is a mystery about her father which he has decided not to reveal before she grows up (she is fifteen), for he thinks that she will not understand or accept it.

Here she also discovers that the sea comb he had given her just before the shipwreck is magical. If only she combs the sea with it, he writes.

And this is precisely what Pandora does. She combs the sea with it and then plunges into the sae and the waves sob, “Pandora, my child!”

When Papandoulous sees the empty drifting boat, he smiles. And that’s the end. I could end it with Pandora’s plunge too. What do you think?

There are legends about the Seal Folk who can change into beautiful humans and fall in love with them. The children born to them have webs between their toes and fingers. Almost always, they return to the sea. I have not explained all this to the reader, hoping to involve his imagination and also, if I do, some of the tension will be lost.

March 31, 1990

Dear Ms. Saran,

Short Story Course, Lesson 2

Thank you for your letter and for sending your second lesson, along with the copy of your story, ‘Blind Among Flowers.’

You are absolutely right about what you know being the total sum of a writer’s experience. I’m afraid that sometimes people are apt to take this too literally and I hear an editor from a major publishing house put it very nicely as ‘Write about what you feel.’ Quite clearly, even fantasy must have its roots in the author’s own psyche and the experiences which have combined to make up his/her personality.

It is in some ways a drawback that fantasy is a limited market, but on the other hand, it is often the case that the best opportunities lie within the limited markets. Certainly, it is a distinct genre and that always makes things easier for the writer in practical terms. Also, you might be able to widen your range to children’s or possibly teenage fantasy for which there is equally a good market.

Incidentally, I am not myself a writer of romance, simply a person with an interest in and considerable knowledge of the genre. I once read ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ years ago, but can hardly remember it, except that for the modern reader it is pretty heavy going, not so much on account of the language but for the slowness of the pace. There is a reasonable market for gothic-style romance, but it is dominated by people like Mary Stewart. I do sometimes write short stories, but I generally think these not quite carefully over a period before writing, so that anything unexpected which comes into them is generally in the detail, though now and gain one sees ways of improving the plot while actually writing.

Your stories which have been published in India could quite easily be submitted to magazines such as ‘Interzone’ and ‘Fantasy Tales’ in the U.K.

I enjoyed ‘Blind among Flowers, a delicate and disturbing story in which language is beautifully used. This might well be tio subtle for the horror merchants, but you have the choice of continuing to do your own thing and remaining true to your own style with a strong possibility of increasing success or adapting to suit other types of outlets. Of course, there is nothing to stop you writing more horrific fantasy under another name!

Your list of the essentials of the modern short story is a thorough one and could well serve as a model answer for this exercise! The point about conflict is of course, a crucial one and one could add to this that the viewpoint character should have a purpose, that purpose being tied up with the opening conflict situation.

I’ve mentioned viewpoint character and it is best, though not an absolute rule, that the narrative should be presented solely from this character’s point of view. Not only does this make for narrative consistency, but also it enables the reader to identify with that character and live the story with him/her.

You haven’t mentioned the visual quality of short story writing, although this is something which is very apparent in your own work. The maxim, ‘show, don’t tell’, is a very useful one, reminding the author to present his story in a series of images, to let the reader see and share the author’s vision. The other senses and the emotions are also important if the reader is to respond both physically and emotionally to the fiction.

Yes, we have some seal legends, too, and indeed a friend of mine has written a romantic novel based on one of these called ‘The Seal Wife’. I like your idea and feel it should develop well, though again we have a story of greater subtlety than might be appreciated by some of the tougher fantasy magazines. I feel that on the whole, we have to ignore these and that you should keep on with your own style which is so very much your own; I suppose that essentially it is a feminine style.

I would end the story when Pandora plunges into the sea, on the basis that when the viewpoint character’s awareness ceases, so does the story. However, it is sometimes quite effective to have a brief final paragraph which shows another character’s angle., rather as you have outlined. That’s for you to decide when you see the story in its final form, but I would stop with the plunge into the sea myself.

I shall look forward to reading the complete story for Lesson 3.

Yours sincerely,

Hilary Johnson, M.A., Ph.D.


P.S. I wouldn’t think there is much chance for fantasy with the BBC’s ‘Morning Story’, but there are wonderful opportunities for plays where you can do virtually anything. I have a friend who writes radio plays which can be categorized as fantasy – surreal, I call them – and she has done very well, now reaching the stage where she is having work commissioned.

Interesting? You can read Part 1 of this series here. And Part 2 here.

A Teacher of Short Stories Writes One in Real Time


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