What makes a good short story? What makes a good collection of stories?

by | Dec 7, 2022

When one writes, or should I say, attempts to write a modern short story one has to ask oneself what will make it interesting to contemporary readers and what will make it stick in their minds after they’ve read it? And when one assembles a collection of stories is there something about the anthology that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts? And how do other writers of short fiction succeed or fail? Studying the work of other authors can be instructive, but too much self-comparison with other writers can also be demoralizing. There is no point in even thinking about how one’s stories compare with Chekov’s because the great master stands alone. And as far as other authors are concerned it’s a matter of personal taste, but more about that later.

Some short stories stick in the mind and have stood the test of time. Famous examples include Chekov’s Lady with the Lapdog, O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find and many others. One favorite of mine is Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece that introduced the world to the mad genius Frenhofer—a character that inspired my own short story Catherine Lescault in The Inquisition and Other Stories.

In their way the (famous) stories mentioned above illustrate the themes that their authors excelled in. Chekov takes us into the emotional and psychological world of his protagonists; Henry’s stories are full of charm and end with a nice twist; O’Connor’s stories are about damaged characters and violence; and Balzac entertains us with original melodrama.

When it comes to the overall impact of a given anthology tastes can vary. Some collections are highly thematic: for example, as seems quite popular today, focusing on stories about relationships and identity whereas others hold our interest by consisting of stories that are completely different from each other.

I’m in the latter school: I like to read and write stories that are as different as possible from each other in both content and style. In The Inquisition and Other Stories I have tried to add to the variety to the stories by employing, where appropriate, different narrative techniques. The first story in the collection, Catherine Lescault, is a historical fiction written as the sequel to Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece. The second story, Table Talk, is above all a foodie story but it is also a story about role-playing and unreliable narrators. The third story, Bright Stars, involves meta-fictional techniques in that it has within it another story, a story that inflames the protagonist’s curiosity. And the last story is an unusual hybrid of narrative prose and a theater play script that is being written by the protagonist, a playwright who has just received a cancer diagnosis.

The theme of variety leads me the writer of contemporary short stories that I particularly like. This is Adam Johnson and his anthology Fortune Smiles. Each story, practically a novella, is highly original, if not daring, and completely different. The collection won the National Book Award in 2015! A masterpiece, in my opinion.


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