Beyond Formulas: What Makes a Compelling Short Story?

Diya Isha
26th Jul 2023

In the world of literature, short stories allow writers to distil complex themes, vivid emotions, and dynamic characters into a tight space. While they can't wholly replace the sprawling expanse of a novel, short stories emerge as invaluable tools for writers to hone core skills and gain unique insights. By embracing the art of concise storytelling, writers learn to capture emotional depth, craft compelling characters, and deliver impactful messages within a limited word count. Simply put: Short stories challenge writers to master brevity and precision, refining their ability to convey richness through restraint.

In her essay "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," Flannery O’Connor, an influential American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, argues against formulaic writing in favor of organic, authentic storytelling. Some writers adhere to preconceived templates or techniques they believe guarantee success. However, this mechanical approach often lacks originality and resonance, resulting in flat, predictable narratives. There's no perfect formula or checklist for excellent writing.

So if formulas fall short, what makes a short story truly shine? O'Connor stresses the importance of an organic approach that emerges naturally from engaging deeply with the story's essence. The most powerful tales don't conform to a formula—the technique arises organically from the narrative's unique elements. Each story demands its own path based on the themes, characters, and narrative arc. An organic approach allows writers to attune closely to the nuances of their story and shape it authentically.

Unpacking celebrated short stories illuminates how masterful writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, the acclaimed author and Pulitzer Prize winner, employ literary techniques to amplify meaning and emotion. Take Lahiri's story "A Temporary Matter," part of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Interpreter of Maladies. It delves into the lives of a couple, Shoba and Shukumar, who become emotionally estranged after the stillbirth of their child. Set during a series of neighbourhood blackouts, their hidden turmoil emerges as darkness envelops their home. Lahiri seamlessly integrates several techniques to deepen the narrative's emotional impact:

Foreshadowing subtly conveys the story's core themes of communication, loss and secrecy through the recurring temporary blackouts in the couple’s neighbourhood. 

At first, these blackouts appear to be a mere inconvenience, but as the story progresses, they take on a deeper symbolic meaning. The darkness during the blackouts becomes a metaphor for the emotional distance between Shoba and Shukumar and the secrets they are keeping from each other. Their regular occurrence subtly prepares readers for an emotional revelation.

Character interactions during the blackouts organically reveal their unspoken pain and coping mechanisms. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the story: 

“We’re going to the bookstore to browse,” a silver-haired man called out. He was walking with his wife, a thin woman in a windbreaker, and holding a dog on a leash. They were the Bradfords, and they had tucked a sympathy card into Shoba and Shukumar’s mailbox back in September. “I hear they’ve got their power ⁠ ⁠“They’d better,” Shukumar said. “Or you’ll be browsing in the dark.” ⁠ The woman laughed, slipping her arm through the crook of her husband’s elbow. “Want to join us?” ⁠ “No thanks,” Shoba and Shukumar called out together. It surprised Shukumar that his words matched hers.

The fact that Shoba and Shukumar respond in unison, saying "No thanks," shows the deep emotional connection between them. Despite their emotional distance and unspoken pain, they share an unspoken understanding and solidarity in their grief. 

Shukumar's surprise at his words matching Shoba's suggests that their pain has affected their communication and emotional intimacy. The Bradfords' invitation highlights this contrast.

Intentional ambiguity invites readers to actively engage with the narrative and characters. Lahiri uses this technique towards the end of the story: 

Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening was still warm, and the Bradfords were walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They wept together, for the things they now knew.

The moment when Shoba turns off the lights is a pivotal and emotionally charged one. It is not explicitly stated why she does it, leaving readers to speculate on her motives. Some might see it as a metaphorical representation of the darkness that has enveloped their relationship, emphasising their emotional distance and unspoken pain. Others might interpret it as a deliberate act to create an intimate space for Shoba and Shukumar to confront their feelings and reveal their hidden truths.

- The dark, confined setting escalates tension and introspection. Let’s unpack the following excerpt to understand how Lahiri uses the story’s setting: 

She unclipped her hair, coiled neatly at her nape during the days, and pried the sneakers from her feet without untying them. “I’m going to shower before the lights go,” she said, heading for the staircase. “I’ll be down.” ⁠ ⁠Shukumar moved her satchel and her sneakers to the side of the fridge. She wasn’t this way before. She used to put her coat on a hanger, her sneakers in the closet, and she paid bills as soon as they came. But now she treated the house as if it were a hotel. The fact that the yellow chintz armchair in the living room clashed with the blue-and-maroon Turkish carpet no longer bothered her. On the enclosed porch at the back of the house, a crisp white bag still sat on the wicker chaise, filled with lace she had once planned to turn into curtains.

The once meticulous and organised Shoba has now seemingly lost her sense of concern for aesthetics and order, reflecting the emotional turmoil she is experiencing. The juxtaposition of the yellow chintz armchair clashing with the blue-and-maroon Turkish carpet hints at the disarray and lack of harmony within the household. This lack of attention to the decor escalates the tension and further underscores the disconnection between the characters.

Lahiri doesn’t stop at just this; she skillfully harnesses the setting to its utmost potential for the story: 

The enclosed porch at the back of the house, with a "crisp white bag" still sitting there, symbolises unfulfilled plans and unrealized dreams. The lace meant to be turned into curtains represents an unfinished project—a space where Shoba's unrealized aspirations are kept hidden away, much like the couple's emotional pain.

- A close 3rd-person perspective builds empathy for the protagonist. By delving into Shukumar's inner thoughts and emotions, readers gain intimate access to his grief and struggles. Take, for instance, this excerpt: 

He began to feel cold as he sat there on the steps. He felt that he needed her to talk first, in order to reciprocate.

The reader becomes immersed in Shukumar’s world as he sits on the steps, feeling the chill of his isolation and the yearning for connection, making the narrative deeply engaging.

I’m sure you’re convinced that “A Temporary Matter” is a layered narrative that allows for a multifaceted reading experience. On the surface, it explores the emotional disconnection between Shoba and Shukumar. Beneath this, it delves into themes of grief, communication breakdown, and the complexities of human relationships. Lahiri's masterful storytelling enables readers to unravel deeper layers of meaning, making the story ripe for multiple interpretations.

Rather than forcing formulas into a story, Lahiri embraces an organic technique where each choice stems from the narrative itself. As writers, we should ask what methods best suit our unique story, characters, and themes. This involves extensive reading, studying masterful techniques, and unpacking celebrated stories. So before you write, pick up a book on your Goodreads list. Immersing yourself in exquisite writing is the perfect inspiration.