What is a Short Story?

Marion Zimmer Bradley

© copyright 1996 by Marion Zimmer Bradley

When I speak of a short story, I am referring to the commercial or category short story, not the New Yorker or "literary" short story. I am dealing with the techniques for writing and selling what is known as commercial fiction. I have long contended that anyone who can write a literate English sentence can learn to write and can make a modest living writing for and selling to these markets, but it is necessary to learn a few simple rules. These rules can be broken, and they are broken all the time in commercial fiction, but only by writers who know them so thoroughly that they know exactly how and why to substitute equivalent elements for the mandatory -- yes, I said mandatory -- elements which the editor needs to have in every story she buys.

Virtually all category fiction -- whether science fiction, romance, suspense, fantasy, adventure, western or any other category -- follows a similar outline which for convenience is known as a formula. This word has acquired very negative connotations, but basically it is a simple summing up of what experience has told editors that the readers appear to want in fiction. Writers who master this formula by giving the editor what his readers want can make a modest living anywhere, and some of them make amazing amounts of money. Writers who ignore this formula, either out of ignorance, or because they honestly believe that creative writing must not be bound by the demands of category or formula, usually end up as starving artists -- unless they are geniuses, in which case they would not need writing technique classes. They call their work literature, and rage against the public which does not recognize literary forms.

The average reader, however, does not read for literary reasons. The average reader does not know that literary reasons exist. The average reader -- this cannot be overemphasized if you wish to make a living at writing fiction -- reads to be entertained. And the kind of thing the reader wants has been carefully studied and seems not to have varied much since the Odyssey, the first novel in existence, three thousand years ago or so, which told how a hero struggled through many dangers to get home to his wife and family and run off the bad guys who had moved in on his preserve.

So let us examine the elements of commercial fiction.


Most short stories work on some variation of the following (so do most novels, but the novel works at a different speed):


Amateur stories, in general, are unsalable because:

1. The main character is NOT LIKABLE ENOUGH. Your reader wants to be able to identity with the way in which your main character, your protagonist, solves his or her problem. (There is a variation of this plot, in which an Absolute Bastard Gets What is Coming to Him, and the reader enjoys watching him come to grief; but this isn't for beginners.)

2. The odds are NOT INSUPERABLE ENOUGH, or the reader does not believe they are sufficiently insuperable. If your hero/ine goes out to fight a bear, it must not turn out to be a teeny-tiny bear cub he could put in his pocket and take home for a pet. The reader must have a REAL PROBLEM. A FAKE PROBLEM is also known as a "paper tiger."

3. The main character DOES NOT SOLVE HIS PROBLEM BY HIS OWN EFFORTS. The problem is solved FOR the character by his Fairy Godmother, the God in the Machine, or the US Cavalry coming over the hill at the last moment. This deprives the reader of a chance to sweat, struggle, cry over, empathize, suffer with, and otherwise feel the strength of the character as he fights to win out over heavy odds.

4. The RESOLUTION is too predictable, too pat; the reader knows all along that Our Hero will win the ball game, the girl, the war. A subset of this is what is called the "idiot plot" -- the plot can keep going only because everybody is acting like an idiot. This is the story where all the problems could be solved by asking a simple question. "Why were you kissing that man?" "Because he is my favorite uncle." End of romantic agonies. This is also the story where the girl does not tell the police what she knows because she jumps to the conclusion that her lover is the murderer.

5. The GOAL is not worthwhile enough, or this particular audience does not see it as worthwhile. Cosmopolitan readers, for instance, would probably not be willing to weep and suffer over a housewife who would steal, lie, and cheat to get new cushions for the sofa. It is getting harder and harder (in these days of feminism) for romance writers to convince their mostly-female audience that a woman would suffer all kinds of humiliations for a man because he happens to be rich, handsome, and "romantic". On the other hand, your goal can be just too cosmic: John Wayne winning World War II all by himself, or Captain Kirk saving the Galaxy single-handed.


In the first couple of paragraphs -- certainly on the first page, unless your story is approaching novel length -- the reader will want to know the following things:

WHO is your main character? Male? Female? A rabbit or a robot, a king or a slave, a macho hero or a wimp, a sensuous siren or a tough Amazon?

WHERE is this happening? We must know whether we are in the dungeons of the Inquisition, near the canals of Mars, cruising the jungles of the Upper Amazon or the deserts of the lower Nile, in the Frozen North or the Golden West or the locker room of the local high school, backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, or in a dugout with the Yankees.

WHEN does this take place? This is especially important in the science fiction or fantasy novel, but it is also relevant to historicals, Gothics, westerns... everything, perhaps, but ordinary boy-meets-girl romance. In order to create the scenery of the story in his or her head, the reader must know almost at once whether this is today, the day after tomorrow, pre-history, the days of King Arthur or the French Revolution, fifty years ago, or "long, long ago in a Galaxy far far away...."

WHAT kind of story is this? The first page, or paragraph, of a Gothic differs enormously from the beginning of a Western, and neither could be mistaken for the first page of a romance, a fantasy, or a sword-and-sorcery adventure, all of which differ greatly from a story of hard science and technology or from a children's book. You should also establish the feel, or mood, of your story, so that the reader knows at once whether this is a funny, flip satire or a serious romance, whether it is farcical, melancholy, or tragic.

Most readers know exactly what they want to read, and they expect a certain kind of story when they buy a certain kind of magazine. The readers of Analog would be very angry if they found a sword-and-sorcery tale in their magazine, and while Ellery Queen's Mystery prints science fiction maybe once a year, that sf story has to be an sf detective story. When a reader buys a magazine, he has a very clear expectation of the kind of story he wants to read, and if he doesn't get it, he stops buying the magazine; and if the editor doesn't deliver it, the editor is out of a job. If your reader is bored or disappointed by your first page -- or paragraph -- nothing on earth will induce him to turn the page and read the second. And if the editor is bored or disappointed with page one, no reader of that magazine will ever see the story.


Most of the elements of the short story (as well as the novelette or novel) come down to these simple elements. They seem so obvious it is hard to understand why many amateur writers never bother to think about them, far less to check them. Yet I get several manuscripts every day in which the writer pays no attention to these simple things.

So as you analyze your story, remember your likable character up against almost insuperable odds, solving his/her problem by personal effort, winning a worthwhile goal and being changed, preferably for the better, by the experience. Remember that the editor needs good stories. If she can't find them and print them and deliver them to her public, she is back pounding pavements looking for another job. Ask yourself:

WHAT KIND OF PERSON is your main character? Can the reader identify, will the reader WANT to identify, with that particular character and his/her problems?

HOW can you best tell this person's story? First person? Third person? Omnipotent observer? Is the story funny, tragic, thoughtful, slapstick?

Where do you START your story? It is seldom right to start when the main character is born. At what point in his or her life is the protagonist facing this critical experience about which you have chosen to write, and why is it important? In general, you should get right into the action. Stories which begin with three pages of description of the weather usually lose the editor after about a page. SHOW, don't TELL, is a good motto.

WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY? Nobody, these days, wants a story which concludes "Now, the moral of this story is..."; but in general, what was your story ABOUT? What was the POINT of the story? Analyze to yourself three or four stories that you liked, and ask yourself why you liked them; what made you finish them instead of putting them down half finished and wandering away? What was the author saying? Was the story worth reading? Why or why not?


Most sales are lost either on the first page, where the editor simply cannot get interested enough in your story to continue reading, or on the last page, where the editor is not satisfied with the solution; the resolution is not tight enough, believable enough, or interesting enough.

Remember one thing: It is not the editor's job to try to get interested in your manuscript. She wants to find good stories, and she wants to deliver them to her public, but it's still your job to get her (or him) interested in the story you are telling, to keep the editor turning those pages until she comes to the end; you have to keep her wanting to turn those pages, wanting to find out what happens next. If she makes it that far, even if she can't buy this particular story, she'll remember your name, and next time you have something that meets her needs, you'll probably make a sale.

If the editor gets bored, nothing is easier than to stop reading, reach for a printed form, and put it on the pile for her secretary to reject. There are always more stories waiting. If she is bored with your story, she knows her readers will probably be bored too. It's her job to know what her readers want, and to deliver it to them, so they will keep coming back to her magazine for the kind of entertainment they paid their beer or movie money for.
And this, guys, is where we came in.

-- Marion Zimmer Bradley

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