Elements of a Short Story


‘A novel is a river, but a short story is a glass of water. A novel is a forest, but the short story is a seed. It is more atomic. The atom may contain the secret structures of the universe.’ – Ben Okri (1959)

Short story is a brief fictional work, shorter than a novel portraying the dealing of a few characters in one or few crucial episodes or scenes. A short story generally reflects phases of life which may be overlooked by traditional novels. In this post we focus on some salient elements of a short story.

Plot and Structure

There is a wide range of plot forms and structural patterns in a short story. A traditional plot has a beginning, middle and an end.  Some modern short story writers complicate the structure of their plots with the use of flash-backs and flash – forwards. Among other techniques that intensify the plot structure are foreshadowing, reversals of fortune, digressions, abrupt transition, change of the narrator and juxtaposition of contrasting characters or setting.  Deliberate ambiguity or open – endedness as opposed to unambiguous resolutions or close-endedness is a plot feature of many short stories. The technique of open-endedness is a plot feature of many modern short stories. The technique of open-endedness enhances the artistic quality of a story because the author does not reveal everything and there is something to think for the reader. There are surprise endings too. A writer can use brief episodes to narrate his story or he can use dialogue form to narrate the story. But we have to understand that there is no any established method in plot construction and a writer has freedom to construct the plot of his short story as he thinks creative and most appropriate.

Point of View

There are four basic points of view techniques namely first person, third person or omniscient, central intelligence and objective. In the third person narration the omniscient or the all-knowing author narrates the story to the reader in his view point. He is not a character in the story but delineates the characters as an outsider. This method enables to provide each character with justifiable, impartial, unbiased commentary by a person who is not engaged in the story. The third-person narrator is usually identified but can be anonymous, and even vague as to gender. In the first person narration author lets one of his characters to narrate the story. Here the narrator is addressing himself as ‘I’ and engross in the story himself as a character major or minor. Narrator independently expresses his own notions, thoughts and attitudes to the reader. This technique of narration facilitate author to express his/her interior feelings and emotions and the author narrates and views other character on his own perspective. The narrator provides his/her idea about the qualities of the other characters according to his own point. The central intelligence technique filters the narrative through the perception of a single character while in objective narration which is rarely used. Author poses as a wholly impartial observer, never giving the reader approach to a character’s thoughts.


The setting of a short story includes time and place of the story. Settings of place vary from rural to urban and exotic to mundane. It could be a polluted city or a serene and tranquil countryside. It can be different according to the theme and vision the writer intended to convey.


In a short story the main character or the protagonist engages in a conflict with another character or antagonist. Characters may be different stereotypes – a lonely woman, a rakish person, a disreputable young man, a witty young lady, a cunning landlady, a colluding young woman and a conventional person. Characterization helps to device the plot of the story while creating and visualizing a dramatic effect and giving a vivacity to the story. Modern short story writers use complex characters to create realism and naturalism. Some characters even help to epitomize various aspects of society.


The main, distinct and unifying idea of an artistic composition is called the theme. In a short story there is a major theme along with some minor themes. The common themes used by authors change from time to time such as during industrial revolution many British writers wrote their works dominating the themes of environmental pollution, distinctions between middle, upper, lower and working class etc. Theme is reinforced in a short story using literary devices such as imagery, symbolism and evocation of atmosphere. Modern themes may include social issues such as poverty, drugs, violence and martial setbacks including divorce, civil issues such as ethical, gender problems, wars and rebellion. Some of the major themes of the twentieth century short stories are human isolation, estrangement, and personal trauma such as anxiety, affection and abhorrence; male-female relationships, family and generation conflicts, initiation from naivetĂ© to to experience, amity and brotherhood, delusions and reality; illusoriness and self-discovery, social and religious entrapment, the individual conflicts with society’s moral and religious institutions or conventions and even the relationship between life and art.

Universal Appeal and Representation of Reality

Aristotle defined universality as the idealizing power in art, i.e. the capacity to lift the narrow world of the story to a higher, wider and vaster world. Thus a short story becomes a part of the panorama of humanity which continues ‘unbroken from generation to generation.’ Short stories, like some other literary genres, address issues of general relevance through the depiction of specific, historically conditioned situations and individualized characters. Therefore, an author of a short story has to deal with human relationships which are realistic and natural.

This portion is extracted from the study guide – A Critical Analysis on Advanced Level Short Stories by P.S. Dissanayake. Therefore, all the credit should go to the original writer of this informative post.

If you find this post useful to others. Please do share it with others. If you have comments with regard to this post, feel free to leave a comment below.

Post a Comment