THE BLOG

What Makes A Good Short Story

10/07/2013 03:36 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013
  • Heidi Pitlor Series Editor, The Best American Short Stories

As the series editor of the annually published "The Best American Short Stories," I read a lot of short stories. I'm also reading for a retrospective titled "One Hundred Years of The Best American Short Stories," to be published in 2015. I just finished reading 98 volumes of the book, so I've been imbibing something like 3,500-4,500 stories a year for the past few years. If I read anything else, it tends to be definitively not a short story. I recently read Andrew Solomon's spectacular tome, Far From the Tree. I read newspapers, Harper's, The Atlantic. I also have some guilty pleasures: People Magazine, The Onion, Gawker, Buzzfeed. Antimatter to the matter (or vice versa) of the literary short story.

At any rate, my point is not to discuss my bipolar taste in reading, rather to say that I think a lot about what makes a good story, or at least a story that I feel is good. A little late to Twitter--that virtual meeting place for so many writers and readers -- I've been tweeting lately about prevalent stylistic tics and pitfalls. It's easier, in the end, to say what doesn't work than to pinpoint exactly what does, as a successful short story does not expose its mechanics. Hell, it most likely does not have mechanics, rather a set of characters, a voice, an arc, momentum and a raison d'être so indivisible that to examine one of these aspects might seem pointless without the context of the others. But back to what doesn't work. Yesterday, I tweeted, "Sometimes, story writers seem to forget to write scenes." This sort of thing is fine if scenelessness is done intentionally. But too often, we as readers enter a story via a small action (a door opening, a phone ringing) and then are held captive while the author utilizes a disproportionate amount of space introducing a character, his marriage, his children, his divorce, his parents and his emotional limitations before we return to the room he just entered or the phone call that just begun. In a 17-page story, each page matters. Each sentence matters. Pacing matters. Unless again this is a story about paralysis or inaction of some other kind. But if so, I'd hope for the writing to emanate energy of another sort -- maybe by means of crisp or funny or colorful language. This language would ideally seem organic to the story and not disrupt the reader's experience. Which unfortunately leads me to another common pitfall: earnest, hand-raising, brown-nosing verbs. These usually can be found alongside mundane inanimate objects: a tree "reposes," a house "huddles," a road "unfurls." This sort of thing annoys me unless, again, there is a point to this word choice, as in a matter of voice or character. Other things that bug me: thinly veiled (or unveiled, for that matter) sexism; self-conscious restraint of voice; a style too closely derivative of stories by J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore, the writers whom I'd guess are most often imitated.

Here are some things I wish I saw more frequently: humor, genre-bending, humor, risk-taking, a more direct addressing of real world matters, humor.

Here are some things I'm always glad to read: loathsome, despicable characters (who says we readers all crave likable characters?); bone-scraping emotional honesty; a strange, off-kilter voice; unreliable narrators; surprise; a solid command of language; a story written with urgency and profundity; great, weird titles (titles matter); the assigning of language to something I have never thought about but should have. Humor.

My seventh "Best American Short Stories," edited by Elizabeth Strout, was just published. I have been lucky to work alongside a wide variety of our countries best writers in what I've come to think of as a two-person book (or story) club. Each has taught me a great deal: Don't be afraid of other genres (Stephen King); Don't cling to natural or domestic realism (Salman Rushdie); A good premise does not entail a good story (Tom Perrotta). Elizabeth Strout was a reader keen on voice. And she understood the voyeurism so often inherent in reading: "We read because we are looking to see what others are thinking, feeling, seeing..."

Maybe, in the end, People Magazine and Gawker don't stand in such diametrical opposition to our country's finest short stories (she writes in a desperate attempt to maintain standing). A good story tells you something interesting about someone. Things happen in a good story. People reveal who they are. This is done with ease of language and some amount of voice. Not much else (other than my latest personal aversions as listed above) stops a good story from succeeding: not tense, not structure, setting, age of characters. I recently tweeted, "Second person seems to be making a comeback." A few people balked at this and I replied, "Good writing is good writing," to which writer Amy Bloom replied, "(MT)Vampires, zombies, and even Brooklyn hipsters don't make good bad." Amen to that.