Here are some commonly asked questions about short stories and their answers.
Can Short Stories Have Chapters, Breaks or Parts?
Yes to all. Division by breaks and parts is commonly seen, sometimes numbered and sometimes not. Chapter breaks with their own titles like we often see in novels are fairly rare, but that can also be done.
- Numbered breaks can be seen in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce.
- Unnumbered divisions are very common. An example can be seen in “The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield.
- Chapter breaks with their own titles are quite rare. An example can be seen in “New Boy” by Roddy Doyle.
Can Short Stories Be In First, Second or Third Person? Can They Have Multiple or Switching Narrators or POVs?
Yes. All points of view are possible and switching between them is fine. First and third person are very common; second is rarely seen. Be aware that switching POV during a story will add to its complexity, especially if it’s not clear who’s talking. Is this a different character, or has a single narrator changed their narrative voice? If it’s your intent to complicate things, then fine. If not, be sure to make it clear what’s going on.
The length limitation will often restrict how many narrators you can use effectively.
- First person is common and can be seen in “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. It can be read in the preview of Great American Short Stories. (64% in)
- Third person is also common and can be seen in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.
- Second person is seldom seen; an example is “The Night” by Ray Bradbury. It can be read in the preview of The Stories of Ray Bradbury. (16% in)
- Multiple narrators and POVs are rare. An example is “Fever” by John Edgar Wideman. “Suzy and Leah” by Jane Yolen has dual narrators.
Can Short Stories Be Part of a Series? Can They Have Sequels?
Yes. Short story cycles are fairly common, where they’re all linked or interrelated in some way. Sequels are also done, but less frequently.
- The Nameless Series follows a man with no memory who makes evil people pay.
- Frank Stockton’s “The Discourager of Hesitancy” is a sequel to “The Lady, or the Tiger”. Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” is a sequel to her story “At the Cadian Ball”.
Can Short Stories Be Epic?
It’s possible but challenging. Epics generally feature heroic characters on longer adventures with action-packed scenes. Jamming all this into a shorter work would be difficult. If you want to write epic short stories, a cycle or series could be the way to go about it. (see question above)
- For some examples see the anthology Epic Fantasy Short Stories.
Can a Short Story Have Multiple Protagonists?
They can but this can present the same difficulties as writing an epic short story. Multiple protagonists mean multiple character developments and multiple arcs. You might find the length getting out of control and having a long story or novel instead. Alternately, trimming everything down might ruin the story, making it seem like you’re trying to do too much. You’ll have to find a balance between the number of protagonists and length.
Can Short Stories Have Happy Endings?
Yes. This question is understandable because there’s a definite tendency in short fiction toward unhappy or more realistic endings. I’m not sure what it is about this medium that lends itself to pessimistic endings. I’m much more comfortable with them in short stories that I am in novels, movies or TV. This is great news if you don’t have a “Hollywood” ending for your work.
If you do want to have a happy ending, that is also totally fine. They’re not rare by any means and certainly won’t jar your reader. A happy ending is more common in genre stories. Many mysteries end happily in that justice is served.
Can Short Stories Have Cliffhangers? Can They End Without Resolution?
Yes. A cliffhanger or ambiguous ending where it’s not made clear what happens next can be used. Keep in mind that a reader might feel unsatisfied with this type of ending, so it needs to be done skillfully.
Ending without a clear resolution is fairly common in that life goes on for the characters; we were just being shown a significant episode. Usually, whatever is happening in the story gets resolved in some way, but it’s not necessary.
- “The Lady, or the Tiger” is the most famous example of a cliffhanger ending. It can be read in the preview of The Lady, or the Tiger? and Other Stories. (Select Paperback preview first, then Kindle)
- Here are other examples of ambiguous endings.
Can a Short Story Have No Characters? How Many Characters Can They Have?
It’s possible to have a story with no characters, but it’s highly unusual for obvious reasons. The things people say and do are usually what drives a narrative.
There’s no upper limit to how many characters can appear. A writer can use as many as are needed and can be handled within the length limitations.
- “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury and “The Wave” by Liam O’Flaherty have no characters.
- “A Silver Dish” by Saul Bellow has over 10 characters.
What Can Short Stories Be About?
Anything you want. As with a novel or any other type of fiction, you’re in control of everything.
If you have a goal for your story, that will probably influence what your subject is. Are you hoping to get it published in a particular place? They most likely favor certain types of stories and won’t allow others. Do you have a specific audience in mind? They will readily accept some things and be resistant to others. How much you want to cater to the standards of others is entirely up to you.
Can Short Stories Reference Copyrighted Content?
If by reference we mean can we refer to the title of a copyrighted work, then yes. If we’re talking about quoting from something or reproducing an image, then no. In those cases, permission would have to be obtained from the copyright holder.
How Much Time Can Short Stories Cover? Can They Change Settings and Be Spread Over Multiple Days?
There are no rules on how much time can be covered and how many settings there are. Whatever is effective for the story you’re telling is fine.
It’s common to focus on a short time period like a day or less, and have one or only a few settings. If that’s all you need, don’t complicate things by adding more. In the end, use the settings and length of time that you require. If you need more and more and it can’t be relayed within the length limitations, you might have a longer story or novel on your hands instead.
- “Seven Birthdays” by Ken Liu has multiple locations and covers a very long time. It can be read in the preview of The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction Stories.
Can Short Stories Have Dialogue, No Dialogue or Be All Dialogue?
Yes. All of these can be effective. I’m guessing that some dialogue is the most common, followed by no dialogue and, lastly, all dialogue. The reason seems fairly obvious—some dialogue will give your narrative a balance between the various elements, so it’s the natural choice. If all dialogue is used or it’s omitted entirely, there should be a good reason for it.
- “The Flowers” by Alice Walker has no dialogue. It can be read in the preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story. (88% in)
- “They’re Made Out of Meat” by Terry Bisson is all dialogue.
Can a Short Story Be a Poem?
Yes. There’s overlap between the two. Some works can be viewed as short stories or prose poems. Prose poems use poetic devices but not the line breaks, making it read as a short story.
- “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is often viewed as both a story and prose poem. It can be read in the preview of The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story. (92% in)
Can Short Stories Have Epigraphs or Forewards?
Yes to both. Epigraphs are sometimes seen, probably because they are very short and can easily be placed before a piece even if it’s part of a larger collection. Forewards generally appear at the beginning of a book. A single short story isn’t often published on its own, so forewards aren’t commonly seen. There’s no reason that one couldn’t be included though.
Some stories that have epigraphs:
- “The Old Man Slave and the Mastiff” by Patrick Chamoiseau
- “Willing” by Lorrie Moore
- “On the Golden Porch” by Tatyana Tolstaya
Can Short Stories Have Epilogues and Prologues?
Yes, they can but they’re not commonly labeled as such like they would be in a novel. However, a story could open and close with scenes that serve the same purpose, that are essentially epilogues and prologues. As always, the overall length has to be kept in mind.
Can Short Stories Be As Successful As Novels?
This depends what you mean by successful, but I think so. Most novels don’t sell lots of copies and don’t have many readers just as most short stories don’t. But if we compare the ones that are successful, I think short stories hold up fine. Some get anthologized and reprinted over and over, and some are part of high selling and critically acclaimed books, with some collections winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Writing a popular or acclaimed novel seems to be the goal for many writers, though, and I think there’s more status attached to those things than to a comparably successful short story.
Can Short Stories Have Flashbacks?
Yes. Flashbacks are often used. The most basic way is using a narrator that is relating something from the past, with the narrator occasionally drawing attention to the present time. In others, the narrator starts a story at a particular point and then jumps back earlier. Or, the narrative could jump back and forth from several different time periods.
Can Short Stories Be Written Like a Diary, Journal Entries or a Letter?
Yes. Epistolary, diary or journal stories aren’t unusual. If your story is best told in one of these ways, go right ahead.
Can Short Stories Still Shock People?
I would say so. If a scene in a movie, show, play or novel can shock, then so can a short story. This isn’t to say crafting a shocking tale will be easy.
Can Short Stories Be Read in One Sitting?
I guess this depends on how long you can sit, but yes, they can. I’ve occasionally read short novels in one session, and often done so with longer stories. The upper limit is usually 7,000-7,500 words before crossing into novelette territory, which is not a problem for most people to consume at once.
Can a Short Story Be Mostly Exposition?
Yes. I know the old adage “Show, don’t tell” discourages this, but it can be done. Sometimes simply telling is the best method. Just make sure that it is the best way to tell your story, and you’re not just using it because it’s easier.
Can a Short Story Have a Monologue?
Yes. A monologue can be used either as part of the story or as the whole thing. Every story told by a first person narrator is a monologue in a sense. Of course, these narrators will often relate dialogue spoken by others, undercutting the effect. But if you want to do a straight monologue, you can.
Can a Short Story Be in Present Tense?
Yes. Present tense is less common in fiction of all kinds, but it can be used.
Can a Short Story Be Plotless?
Yes. They can be plotless or have very little in the way of plot. A character could only be thinking about things with no physical movement of any kind. As with many other options in writing a story, care must be taken that it’s not being used because it’s easy. If your story has no plot is that intentional or because you can’t think of a good plot?
Can a Short Story Have a Really Long Title?
Yes. While short to medium length titles are most common, long titles are sometimes seen. I assume that publishers and writers prefer shorter titles, judging by their preponderance. But if a longer title suits your work, it’s acceptable to use one. If you don’t believe me, see “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again”, one of the best titles I’ve ever heard.
Can a Short Story Have Multiple Themes?
Yes, and unless it’s really short it most likely will. Some stories have one predominant theme with other minor ones, but if there is only one that’s alright.
Can Short Stories Have Too Many Adjectives?
Yes. Any kind of writing can have too many adjectives, just as it can have too much of anything else. If you think yours might, look at each of them and ask:
- Is it necessary?
- Is there a more precise noun that will eliminate the need for the adjective?
Can a Short Story Make Money?
Yes. This is possible, but it’s a challenge to make money with any kind of writing, and writing short stories isn’t one of the easier ways. If making money from writing is your main purpose, it might be better to look into other forms.