Elements of a Short Story

Elements of a Short Story
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  • 0:02 What Is a Short Story?
  • 0:43 Short Stories and Characters
  • 1:33 Short Stories and Setting
  • 2:16 Short Stories and Plot
  • 3:57 Short Stories:…
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

When you read a short story, have you ever stopped to think about its main elements? This lesson discusses the five main elements of a short story, including characters, setting, plot, conflict, and theme.

What Is a Short Story?

First things first, what is a short story? The answer may seem pretty obvious, but a short story is a story that is short and to the point. Generally, short stories include:

  • One main character, and maybe a handful of minor characters
  • One major conflict
  • Only several events

Short stories can be anywhere from 1,000 words to up to 20,000 words, and usually don't take more than a few hours to read.

Now that you know what a short story is, it's time to discuss the five elements that all good short stories have: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and theme.

Short Stories and Characters

As mentioned, short stories usually have one main character. They follow that main character closely. Some short stories may include other minor characters. As a rule, short stories do not spend much time on character development, or thoroughly explaining the motivations and evolution of each character.

Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' is an excellent example of a short story with a single main character and a few minor characters. Poe's story features an unnamed narrator who speaks of the events from his perspective. It focuses on only the most important information about the narrator. Meanwhile, readers learn very little about the minor characters, which include an old man (all the reader knows is that he's dead and had a creepy blue eye) and several police officers that investigate the narrator.

Short Stories and Setting

The second important element of a short story is setting; in other words, when and where the story takes place. Setting helps provide context for the reader. Why is the main character behaving or speaking in a certain way? How does the setting contribute to the overall tone? Short story settings should be clear to the reader.

Mark Twain's short story 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County' takes place during the 1800s in the American West. The setting helps create context for the reader. The main character leaves his home on the East Coast and moves to a mining town to find his fortune. This information gives some insight into the way the characters behave and lends a folksy air to the story.

Short Stories and Plot

All good stories, not just short stories, have a plot. The plot is made up of all of the different events that happen in the story. If you've ever read the inside cover or the back of a book, it usually gives you a brief description of what the story is about; this is part of the plot.

Take, for example, the plot of W.W. Jacobs' 'The Monkey's Paw.' The story begins when Sargent-Major Morris returns from India and visits his friends, the White family. Over drinks, Morris explains that he has a mystical monkey's paw that can grant three wishes. But owner beware, the monkey paw is bad news. Morris decides to burn it, but Mr. White snatches it out of the fireplace, determined to make a wish.

Despite Morris's advice, Mr. White wants to keep it and use it for himself. After Morris leaves, the White's son, Herbert, suggests that his dad wish for 200 pounds (British equivalent to the dollar). Mr. White makes his wish, and the monkey paw moves in his hand, but nothing else happens. The next day, a man shows up at the door to tell Mr. and Mrs. White that Herbert died on the job, and his company would pay the family 200 pounds for their loss.

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