I’ve loved reading short stories for as long as I can remember. Perhaps my love is rooted in fond memories of curling up on our family’s tweed-covered, school-bus-sized sofa, each of us companionably passing a book down the line for turns at reading aloud.
Now that I’m an adult, there are times when reading a short story can feel much more comforting and attainable than reading an entire novel. When I’m sitting next to a loved one in the hospital. At the end of a too-stressful day. Between holiday festivities. On a late summer evening that is fading ever so slowly and beautifully.
I even enjoy reading short stories I don’t like. More about that later.
First, what exactly is a short story?
A short story is fiction. While we might think of a well-written article or an engaging essay as a short story, only fiction qualifies as a short story.
A short story can be read in one sitting. While a novel can range from 75,000 to 125,000 words, and a longer novella might land at 40,000 words, a short story can range anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words.
A short story features a limited number of main characters. Short stories are almost always an intimate peek at one or two characters, and the best short stories include just the right details to bring those characters to life.
However, fewer characters do not translate to a superficial story. In fact, the opposite becomes true as readers are placed deeply into a character’s experience—which leads me to my next point.
A short story is complete, developed, and complex. In a short story, readers are drawn in deeply and quickly to experience the full cycle of a satisfying story. While the word count of one chapter in a novel might equal the word count of a short story, the reading experience is not the same. A novelist can spend hundreds, if not thousands, of unnecessary words, but the writer of a short story knows that every word must have value.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for mystery. Some of my favorite short stories have left me with questions long after I finished reading the story.
Reading a short story is a “literary” experience. A completely developed story, with just enough external plot development to propel internal conflict, is what makes a piece of writing “literary fiction.” Reading an entire novel in this style, while rewarding, can feel tedious—but with a short story, you get all the benefits of literary fiction, but in short doses. Studies have shown that reading literary fiction can sharpen our minds and build empathy.
And there’s one more reason why I love reading short stories.
A short story is a nice way to discover a new-to-me author. In a novel, I might be 15-25% into the story before I decide to put it down, and that’s quite a bit of investment in anything that’s less-than-stellar. But if after reading a short story, I’m still on the fence about a new-to-me author, I can pick up another of that author’s short stories right away and quickly get a sense of whether it was just a fluke that I didn’t like the first story, or if I’m consistently not going to enjoy this author.
So much about life is long-term. Raising kids, working at the same job, growing a garden, housekeeping, or trying to change old habits can feel like life on perpetual repeat. But when you pick up a short story, you’re instantly immersed in a different world—briefly, but intensely, living through the highs and lows of the characters.
And one more thought, dear friend. Sometimes short stories are looked down on in the reading world. Some readers take great pride in carrying around thick sagas—doorstop-worthy books that morph into long series covering multiple generations—and there’s a wonderful time and place for that style of reading. But the reader who reaches for short stories, who reads a complete story while working out at the gym, waiting in line at the carpool, and before going to bed, will find her life being consistently enriched, one short story after another.
My Favorite Contemporary Short Stories
Canadian author and Nobel Prize Winner Alice Munro writes beautifully about unexpected subjects. “Fits” is a great example of how Munro’s stories can appear to be about one thing on the surface and are about much more on a deeper level. Read my review of “Fits” here.
John Grisham has written several short stories that take place in Ford County, Mississippi, where his first novel, A Time To Kill, takes place. One of these stories ranks as the most memorable short story I’ve ever read. Read my review of “Fetching Raymond” here.
Maile Meloy also writes stories that can push me uncomfortably. One of my favorites, and one of Meloy’s more tame stories, is “The Proxy Marriage.” Read my review here.
My Favorite Classic Short Stories
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are old favorites that deserve to be re-read. Read my review of “The Fir Tree” here and “The Little Match Girl” here.
Our beloved Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, has written a variety of lesser-known short stories that range from humorous to comforting to edgy. Alcott’s short stories are so numerous I recommend picking up a complete collection so you can take your time enjoying them. If you’re in the holiday spirit, read my review of “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” here.
Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain all wrote short stories, as did Agatha Christie (both a Miss Marple Collection and a Hercule Poirot Collection).
I’m sure I’ve missed some wonderful short stories that should be on this list, so I hope you’ll email me about your own favorites!
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash.)