This is a question I regularly get asked by students. I was doing a talk at a writers’ group in Bournemouth on Monday evening and it came up again. I know I have my own definition, it’s one I’ve refined and honed over the years, and it’s this:
A short story is a piece of writing where a character has a problem, which is resolved by the end in an unexpected way, preferably by the character’s own endeavours. During the process the character is changed in some way.
There does not have to be a twist, but the problem can’t be resolved so simply that there was never really a story.
I don’t really think about this definition when I’m writing a story, but what I do find interesting is this. If I’m struggling with a story that isn’t working, it’s usually because one of these elements is missing. Perhaps there is no problem, for example. Or perhaps it’s resolved by someone else, or perhaps the resolution is too obvious.
There are other definitions, other elements, like themes and universal truths that come into play, but this definition has stood me in very good stead.
If you want to know more my next two courses are about short story writing
Write a short story in a weekend takes place at Fishguard 15th – 17 February
I’m also teaching How to Write and Sell Short Stories in Bournemouth on Saturday 9 March, 13.