October 16, 2022

5 Elements of a Short Story

Short stories can seem intimidating because of… well, their shortness. It can sometimes feel that as a reader you are constantly decoding the secrets of a densely packed narrative. That takes a lot of brain power. However, it doesn’t have to be like that. Below are five elements of a short story that make it easier to decipher what is going on.


It goes without saying that the characters bring any story to life. In a short story, there tends to be a cast of only a few characters who are each used to develop an element of the story. For example, in James Joyce’s A Painful Case the story centres around Mr. James Duffy as is made clear to the reader in the first line. The character of Mrs. Sinico is introduced to provide a furtherance to Mr. Duffy’s story. She becomes a source of inner conflict for him. This conflict further develops his character and naturally propels the narrative forward.

However, there are exceptions when there are more than a few characters. These can really make your head spin to begin with! This tends to happen in short stories which are slightly longer and is especially typical of the Victorian and Edwardian eras because writers used to be paid by the word or line at this time. Therefore, the stories of these eras tend to be longer and may even have been published in serial form in magazines to ensure that the writer had a regular weekly income. Anton Chekov’s The Lady with the Dog is an example of a short story with multiple characters from this time. In many ways a misnomer, it may be said that the story centres around Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov with the other characters being peripheral to his story.

Top tip: If you are struggling to identify the main character, a good tip is to think about which character the story couldn’t do without. Whose story is being told and why?



Intrinsically linked with character, the conflict within the story is something worth paying attention to. In most cases it is the source of the action, the thing which makes the story what it is. If you’re struggling to decipher a story, look for the source of conflict within the story. Think about what it tells you about the character and/or the plot. Conflict doesn’t have to be a spectacular battle or argument (although in some cases, it might be). It can be some sort of inner conflict too.

Take Mr. James Duffy in A Painful Case referenced above. The conflict in the story centres around his inner battle against loneliness and isolation. He must contemplate what his relationship to Mrs. Sinico is and live with the consequences of this contemplation. It doesn’t even have to be as complicated as that. If a character is looking out of a window and watching the world go by whilst longing to be part of what is beyond the window, the reader may infer that the character is conflicted in their sense of isolation.

Top tip: Look for sources of ‘mini’ conflict within the story as well as the overarching conflict. These are little incidents like when a character debates how they should look for a meeting. Such instances help to build a picture of the character and also contribute to the overarching conflict in some way.


  1. Point of view

The point of view in a short story simply refers to the register it is written in. The register tends to either be first- or third-person. This can tell a reader a lot about the story in the first few lines. Potentially one of the most famous short story writers ever to have lived, Edgar Allan Poe does something very interesting with point of view that demonstrate the importance of register.

The stories he is best known for are gothic horror stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher are mainly told in the first-person. The immediate use of the pronoun ‘I’ connects the reader to the character. This is because it creates the illusion of a person-to-person confessional conversation. The reader quickly becomes invested in the character’s emotions and they feel the shock and fear of the character more acutely.

On the other hand, he mixes the first- and third-person narratives in stories such as The Balloon Hoax. The mix of narrative provides a dramatic and rather shocking effect. The first part of the story is told in the third-person by an objective observer. This narrator gives the reader the facts of the matter. The story then switches to the first-person. This narrator tells the same story with extreme embellishment, so much so that the reader can tell he is lying. This creates a strong emotional response that exists outside of the character. It relies upon the reader having read the first part of the story.

Top tip: The best way to tell if the story is in the first- or third-person is to look for the pronoun ‘I’.



Setting is one of the most important elements of a short story in determining the tone and/or atmosphere. In a novel, there is plenty of space to build a picture of the setting. However, because a short story is more compact there is less space to describe the setting. The easiest way to demonstrate this is using the examples cited above:

  • A Painful Case – the title doesn’t tell the reader much about the setting, but when the title of the collection is considered, it becomes clearer. The title of the collection is Dubliners, implying that the story is set in Dublin.
  • The Lady with the Dog – Like A Painful Case, the title doesn’t tell the reader much. However, within the first few paragraphs place names are mentioned. There are also descriptions of the surroundings interwoven throughout the story which help build a clear picture of setting.
  • The Fall of the House of Usher – Unlike the other examples, the title implies that the story is set in a house where bad things happen. The feeling of foreboding created by the description of the house and its surroundings is sufficient for the reader to gain a sense of the atmosphere of the setting.

In other short stories, the setting is not always so clear cut. To return to the example of the character looking out of the window, it may not be clear where the window they are looking out of is. In this instance, what is important is not where the window is situated. Rather, it is the reader’s ability to recognise that the setting is indoors.

Top tip: If you are unsure about the setting of the story, make a list of the locations you can identify in the story. This helps you ascertain a more concrete setting.



One of the most intriguing elements of a short story is its climax. Simply put, the climax is the point at which the action is at its highest point. It is the most exciting part of the narrative as the character confronts their source of conflict. The climax goes together with a resolution to the conflict. However, contrary to most people’s understanding of the word, the resolution does not have to be positive or complete. For example, in A Painful Case the climax is Mrs. Sinico’s death. This is followed by Mr. Duffy’s resolution that he will live with the guilt caused by this.

Top tip: To recognise the resolution of the story, think about what the characters have decided to do at the end of the story.

With these five elements of a short story identified, you have everything you need to unlock this literary enigma. Short stories are a great way to get into reading and fit nicely into the reading routine strategies discussed in a previous post. What’s more, they don’t take long to read. There’s also such a variety out there that there is something for everyone.



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