What makes a good short story?

Australian author Robert Drewe told The Age newspaper on October 11 that the success of a short story hinged on an elusive, lingering, “wow factor”.

Then, speaking to Readings Monthly, he went further: “Short stories have an immediacy and power and speak to us personally, more than a novel does. Apart from its sharper focus, what the good story has over the novel is that it sets up a need in us that we weren’t aware of – and then fulfils it. I appreciate that small miracle.”.

I have to agree. Having just read 100 short story entries for a secondary school writing competition, I divided up the contenders as follows: Not quite there; Competent-to-well done; and Memorable. It’s the latter, lingering quality I’m looking for when judging or reading stories. That special something that surprises me. That makes me sit up and think. And then read it all over again.

There were stories where the authors had a done brilliant jobs imagining the lives of their characters and creating effective snapshots of life. If I was their English teacher, these stories would all get an “A”. But as a judge, I’m looking for something even better.

Another entrant, from year 10, told of a marriage under pressure. The couple portrayed perceived a baby would save their relationship but conceived a child with disabilities, resulting in further disharmony. It was a sophisticated story, executed with aplomb. If I was the student’s teacher I’d have marked the story with an “A+” or High Distinction.

But it didn’t linger.

So the main prize went to a story where the plot wasn’t particularly clear or complete but the images were so vivid I wanted to savour them like the flavours in a rich curry. An engaging opening line captured my attention. The paragraphs that followed didn’t let me go, delivering just as much intrigue. The winner, another year 10 student, had “wow factor”. It’s hard to define but you know it when you read it.

One thought on “What makes a good short story?”

  1. I personally love reading short stories better than long novels, I am unsure but I can get a much bigger picture as not that much detail is go into, so I am then able to imagine a lot more as with novels you can sort of be told how to imagine things.

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