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Ministry of Education.

Learning task 1: The short story - a study in intense brevity

What makes a short story?

An Arrest is short story written by Ambrose Bierce, a celebrated American writer. It has used all the rules for a short story very effectively and in such a way that the reader "knows" a lot about the characters and the story teller's attitudes without long descriptions and comment.


  1.  List the characters in the story.
  2.  The writer has "told" you a lot about Orrin Brewer. What are his concerns and fears about the woods? Write down the sentences that tell you.
  3.  How does the opening sentence influence your response to the story? What does it indicate to the reader about the type and style of story?
  4.  Bierce uses a series of similes and metaphors to build up the mood of the story. How effective are these images in developing the atmosphere and suspense of the story?
  5.  At what point does the story end? Could the story be extended past this point and, if so, how effective would it be?
  6.  How long did it take to read this story?
  7.  From your answers write down six "rules" that could be used to define a short story.

 A short story has elements of the poem and the letter. Its "rules" have been "set" since the first short stories began to appear in popular magazines in the nineteenth century.

These rules were developed by Edgar Allan Poe who said that a Short Story should:

  1.  Be complete by itself.
  2.  Be able to be read in one sitting.
  3.  Have every word used for important effect.
  4.  Have a good opening sentence that is developed throughout the work.
  5.  End at its climax.
  6.  Have no more characters than those necessary for the action.

What is in a short story?
 A short story is made up of several aspects. These are:

  • The storyline or plot
  • Point of view
  • The writer's intention or theme
  • The characters
  • The setting.

 The whole story is given tone by the way the writer chooses to tell the story. This involves both point of view and style.

Review activity:
 Read An Arrest.

  1.  What is the plot or story-line? Write a sentence that outlines the plot.
  2.  What is the theme or the writer's intention in writing the story?
  3.  Write a sentence that describes the setting.
  4.  How has the writer chosen to tell the story?
  5.  From whose point of view is the story told?
  6.  What is the style of the story?
  7.  Is there anything unusual about the use of time (tense) in the sentences? Offer some reasons to explain why the writer wrote the sentences like this.

 Choose one of the other stories from the Horror Masters - Short Stores website and use these questions to analyse the story.

Why Does a Writer Write a Short Story?

When a writer creates a short story s/he has several possible purposes available. These can be to:

  • entertain the reader by telling a "good yarn."
  • make the reader ask questions like why? For what reason? How did it happen?
  • take a position on an issue by conveying an opinion.
  • make the reader feel sad or happy, angry or pleased, sympathetic or opposed, amused or disgusted...

 A short story can have more than one purpose which becomes clear to the reader through the tone and style of writing used by the author, as well as what happens.

Access short stories from one of these websites:

Short story archives

Note: These sites are essentially web-based libraries or archived publications which means that students should be given a list of Short Story writers they could search for on these sites to access possible stories for this exercise.

Suggested stories

  • Ambrose Bierce, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell TaleHeart", in The Fall of the House of Usher and other Stories
  • Charlotte Perkins, (1989). "The Yellow Wallpaper", in The Yellow Wallpaper & other Writings. Bantam.
  • Patricia Grace, (1987). "Flies" in Electric City. Penguin
  • Frank Sargeson, "Boy" in Collected Stories
  • Owen Marshall: "The Fat Boy" in The Divided World. McIndoe. 1989
  • Eudora Welty: "A Visit of Charity" in A Curtain of Green. Harcourt & Brace. 1979
  • Shirley Jackson "The Lottery"in The Granta book of the American Short Story. 1993
  • Flannery O'Connor: "Good Country People" in The Granta book of the American Short Story. 1993
  • Kurt Vonnegut Jr: "Welcome to the Monkey House" in:The Granta book of the American Short Story. 1993

Each story has been written with a different purpose in mind. Read at least two of the stories carefully. Decide what the writer's purpose was in writing each story. Discuss your reasons and supporting evidence (quotations from the story or references to incidents, characters, aspects of setting, style, in the story.) with your teacher. Build up a list of purposes on the board.

 Note: These urls and text references can be used to develop responses for Independent Research (Achievement Standard 3.7) later in this study.

 Use this to help you work out your answers.

  • What is the tone of each story?
  • From whose point of view is the story told?
  • Discuss your answers with your teacher.

Beginning the dissection

 When you read a short story you should ask yourself:

  • How important is the title?
  • How does the story begin?
  • How does the story develop?
  • How does the story end?
  • Who tells the story?
  • What sort of language is used?
  • What are the images used?
  • What are the characters like?

 The answers to these questions will help you understand the story and the writer's reason for writing it.

The Title: Short Story writers will often "load" the title of the story to direct the reader to a particular reading of the content or to focus on a significant image or symbol within the story. For example: Owen Marshall uses the title "Cabernet Sauvingon with my Brother" to draw attention to the wine as a symbol of friendship, of unity between the narrator and his brother.

In doing a close reading of a short story it is worth while examining the relevance of the title to the action and exchanges that occur in the story. Consider the use of irony, symbolism, allusion and humour in the title as you read the story.

The beginning will introduce you to the important aspects of the story such as the setting or background or characters. In An Arrest the writer uses the ideas he associates with the woods at night, to introduce the feeling of fear and suspense, the things he feels the reader should know about and understand.

Check out what authors think about the importance of beginnings at:
How to Open Without a Bang

 The way the story is developed allows the writer to create a feeling of suspense, or surprise or tension. S/he can do this by choosing a particular way of telling the story. A simple way is by organising the events as they happen... first this... then this... then this... then that... then this... which led to the end.

 Another way is by using a rapid series of scenes that shift from place to place or time to time but are still obviously connected.

 Some writers tell the story as though the story-teller is playing the events through his mind. This can create a story that does not seem to have any organisation at all. This is a "free association" story..

The Ending
 As you read short stories you will realise that the ways writers choose to end the stories will have different effects on you.

 Some writers will tie up all the strands of the story so that the reader "sees" all that happens to the characters and can recognise the purpose of the story reasonably easily.

 Other writers, like Roald Dahl, will end the story with a twist ending that makes you smile or recoil in disgust.

 Another way to end a story is to leave the ends loose so that the reader has to provide the ending based on the clues and hints left by the writer throughout the story. This is a favourite ending for TV programmes like The Bill or Casualty.

 Class activity:

  1. Here are a series of titles of Short Stories, some of which can be found online, others can be found in anthologies in your library. Before reading the stories what does each title suggest the story is about? Offer some reasons for your deductions.  
    1.  The narrator's relationship with her husband?.
    2.  The narrator's state of mind?
    3.  How the narrator sees herself in relation to others in the community or social group?
    4.  The language used by the narrator offers clues about the setting in time and place for the story. From this brief extract offer some suggestions as to when and in what sort of society this story is set.
  2. Discuss the endings of the stories you read as part of this study. What sort of ending does the writer use in each story?

 Find, in the library or on the World Wide Web, examples of stories that use the different types of beginnings and different types of endings. Write the title and author of the story and identify the type of beginning and ending. Provide evidence from the story to support your decision.

Who's Doing the Talking?

Telling the story:

 Just as the endings of stories can be different and create different effects on a reader, the writer can also change the way s/he chooses to "tell " the story. This is referred to Point of View.

 There are several ways that a story can be told. The writer can decide to become a character in the story and tell of the events as they affect him or her. The character could act as a reporter and comment on the action and the way it affects another character or characters.

 The character will refer to him or herself as "I" and those involved with them as "we". This is called First Person Narrative.

 Another way is to tell the story with the author sitting outside the action and observing everything that goes on. The author will "know" what will and has happened to all the characters. The author will refer to the characters as he, she, her, him, they, their, them. This is called Eye of God narration.

 Stories can be developed so that the writer can "free associate" ideas to spin off events and thoughts to create the story. This technique can be used to tell the story as if the character is thinking. Because the story can go in many directions with the ideas linked by the narrator's thoughts this is called the stream of consciousness narration.

 Each method will create a different type of story and cause the reader to react in a different way.

 Look back at the stories you found for the previous activity that use different ways of telling a story. How did you react to the different ways the stories were told? Which way of telling the story held your attention? Why? Discuss your answers with your teacher.

Characters and Point of View:
 The way the writer chooses to tell the story will also change the way the characters appear. Short stories show the reader a particular side of a person or his or her relationship to another person. If you look at Frank Sargeson's you will see the story is told by the boy as though he was talking to he reader.

Because Sargeson has told the story in the first person we are told nothing about what the boy looked like, what his parents looked like or the sort of place they lived in. The boy does not think that that information is important because he "wants to tell" about his concentration on his birthday and how he sees his parents' reactions to his behaviour.

 A story told by a writer as an observer will often give more detail and information because the observer-author "knows" more than the author as a character.

 Re-read Patricia Grace's Flies (Electric City. Penguin 1987). Is the author an observer or is she a character in the story? How do you know?

When the story is told through the character's thoughts (stream of consciousness) the reader builds up a picture of the character and his/her concerns from the many clues that develop from the way her/his mind flicks from idea to idea.

 Re-read James Joyce's Eveline.

 Who is telling the story? How do you know?

 The point of view of this story seems to vary from that of an outsider observing Eveline to an impression that Eveline is "sitting outside herself" observing and analysing her behaviours and decisions. How does James Joyce do this? Offer a reason for the choice of such an ambiguous point of view in this short story.

The Distinctive Voice

 Some of the most important things a writer must remember are the words that are used and the way the characters speak, as these will create the moods and impressions necessary to impact on the reader.

Sargeson's Boy talks as if he was a twelve year old. He talks about the things a twelve year old might do in the language of a twelve year old. For example: "I didn't say anything. Instead I gave one of my famous sniff in sniffs. It was a case of urgent necessity."
 "Any how years and years went by and one morning I woke up and found I was twelve years old. It was all too marvellous for words."
 "I felt like telling her it was only twenty-five minutes, but I somehow thought with my father there I'd better not. But it was only the next day that my father heard me answering my mother back, and oh gee if he didn't lay it on."

Patricia Grace tells the story Flies in the way small children would by using short sentences and concentrating on the sounds, smells and actions that fascinate children. For example: "Lizzie and Nereana had just finished their jobs when Macky came with his fly.

The fly was on a short piece of cotton, which was all Macky had been able to find.
 "Get some of Aunty's cotton," he said, "and I'll give you some of my flies." He showed them the matchbox with the flies in it."
"The dunny seat and floor were still wet and stank of jeyes, and the flies, once disturbed, buzzed and circled and zoomed."

A good writer tries to build the story and its characters by making sure that the language used sounds like it would be used by the people involved in the situation being written about. If it doesn't the characters won't seem real to the reader and the story won't "work."

This means that if your character is a woman about your mother's age she would not normally speak in the same way as a school-aged person. The differences between people of varying ages and backgrounds can be shown in a story by the words they use and the way their sentences are constructed.

While style can create and develop characters it can also develop the mood and atmosphere in the story.


 Choose three characters and situations from the lists that follow. For each character write a paragraph using words and sentence constructions that suit the person and the situation you place them in. Discuss your responses with your teacher and class.

 teenage boy  on a marae
 teenage girl  at a wedding
 school teacher  at a funeral
 guitarist in a pop group  at the meal table
 lawyer  with friends
 TV personality  in the school grounds
 politician  at a social
 old man or woman  in a meeting
 radio DJ  on the telephone

 What sort of sentences and words were used by the writers of the most realistic paragraphs?

If the reader's attention is to be kept the writer will have more than an exciting or interesting story to tell. 

The Writer's Tools: Constructing the character using Adjectives, Verbs and Adverbs

 As you read the short stories in this unit you have seen how a writer develops characters by the way the person speaks or acts in a particular situation. These are techniques that develop from the story. At other times the author tells the reader what the character is like through the sorts of words and their functions in the sentence that the writer decides to use these can be adjectives used to describe the person, verbs used to state an action or adverbs used to change the meanings of the verbs. All of these are important tools in the writer's tool-box which you will use when you write your own short stories. While adjectives describe the characters or setting the actions that occur in the story are told through the verbs and adverbs

Editing the Story:
Used well, adjectives, verbs and adverbs build an effective story. When they are over used the story can become difficult to read because the action takes too long to happen. A writer will always try to "tighten the writing up" by economising on his or her use of adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Here is an example where the writer has over written the description of the character. The writer could easily edit these four paragraphs into a less "over-written" style which would be more interesting for the reader as well as getting the action moving a lot faster. Here are the opening two paragraphs edited into a less wordy style:

He was an awkward kid. His eyes squinted from behind tortoiseshell circles, his ears jutted from his head and his hair, cut with a view to economy, a stubble over his moonlike face. He clutched his school cap in his sweaty hand.

You will notice that the editing has reduced the two paragraphs to one while keeping the description, and the writer's attitude to the character, obvious to the reader.

Discuss with your teacher the effectiveness of the rewriting. How has the writer's attitude to the character been kept in the rewritten paragraph? What words showed the author's attitude? Try your hand at editing. Rewrite the third and fourth paragraphs of THE GREAT DAY to reduce the over-written style of the writer.

As you edited the paragraphs you would have noticed that you removed many of the adjectives and adverbs that the writer used to fill out the description of the boy and the courtyard. You have seen that the writer could have created a believable scene which still let the reader know how s/he was to "see" the character. The skill in recognising where a writer has "over-written" by using too many adjectives or adverbs is one that every writer must learn. It is harder to do if it is your own writing that you are editing because you want to protect the words you have written. Professional writers will often use an editor to suggest possible rewrites or alterations to the story so that it arouses the reader's interest and keeps them reading. In the next activity you will analyse a short story to discover how the author uses the different elements to create a situation and tell a story.

Close analysis

Keep these notes beside you as you read Eudora Welty's Why I Live at The P.O.. They will act as a prompt as you do the analysis.


 Like the novel and the play, the short story has the elements of:

  • plot
  • theme
  • character
  • setting
  • point of view
  • style

 Each element contributes to the overall effect of the story.

 As you read and write a short story you should keep the following questions in mind:

  • What is the writer's purpose? to entertain? to be thought provoking? to state an opinion? to play on the reader's emotions?
  • What is the writer's tone? Is the writer being ironic? sarcastic? humorous? serious? tongue in cheek?
  • How does the story begin? Does the writer establish setting or emphasise the background of the situation? Is the character given more emphasis than the setting? How much detail is supplied?

Look at your own short short story... how much detail is supplied by the writer? How much is supplied by the reader? A good short story allows the reader to flesh out the details so that the writer can get on with exploring the situation he or she is concerned with.

  • How does the story develop? Is it told through a series of blocks moving rapidly through time and space, like flash backs and flash forwards? Is it being told chronologically?
  • How does the story end? With a twist or surprise? With a build up to an inevitable climax or are you left hanging, being forced to supply your own ending based on your reading of the little blocks of action the writer supplied?
  • Who tells the story? Is the story being told through the eyes of a character involved in the action? Is the author standing outside of the action and observing? Is the author observing but within the action?

Check the use of the pronoun... if it is I, me, my, our, we then the author is a character within the story. The story is being told in the first person. If the pronouns are: he, she, it, hers, his, they, them, their the author is outside of the action and observing as if he/she was God. This is known as the Eye of God technique.

Another way of telling a story is as a series of thoughts, each thought block building up an impression or action. The thoughts can be told in a logical order or as they seemingly occur to the character... at random. This is known as the stream of consciousness technique.

  • What is the language and style like? The impression the writer wants in the story will be affected by the language he/she tells the story in or has the characters use. Frank Sargeson uses the colloquial, chatty style that creates an impression of 1930-50s NZ 'mateiness'. Yvonne Du Fresne, writing about new settlers in NZ, uses a style that reflects the confusions of word meaning and usage that a non-English speaker will have. The language is important to develop the character and action. The realism of the dialogue will influence our reading of the story and our attitudes to the characters involved.
  • What images are used? In order to rapidly develop a story the writer relies on the reader recognising particular symbols and references and understanding what he/she intends them to mean, eg. in Maurice Gee's story "Schooldays" (Maurice Gee - Collected Stories. Penguin Books) the lead character's red hair becomes a symbol for rebellion, challenge and freedom.
  • What are the characters like? The characters don't have to be fully developed. They need not have a name. They can be identified simply as "the boy", "the girl". "the mother." In other stories it is essential that the characters have fully developed personalities and motivations.
  • How important is the setting in conveying the ideas and mood of the story?

Formative Assessment for English 3.2

English 3.2: Respond critically to written text(s) studied.

The response will be expected to be in essay form which should include an introduction clearly stating the focus and scope of the argument, a range of points supported by accurate and relevant examples and evidence, and a reasoned conclusion. The essay would be expected to show accurate use and control of writing conventions.
Students writing about the short story must refer to at least two of sufficient depth and complexity to enable students to respond at a level that will achieve the standard. The texts would be expected to have significant literary merit/worth/qualities - have an established critical reputation or acclaim.

Published on: 07 Apr 2009