A Good Short Story is Like a Full-Course Meal

I love a good short story. A short story is like a full course meal: tasting and lingering over the appetizer, hungrily devouring the main course, and then the satisfaction of the dessert. Some stories are multi-course, fine-dining experiences, and some are street-food. Both can be good or bad, and sometimes we’re just in the mood for one or the other. But any short story requires all the elements of a meal to be successful.

The appetizer is the inciting incident that gets the story rolling; the cataclysmic event that impels the characters to take action.

Without this “appetizer” we might not feel like eating the main course – or perhaps not really enjoy it as much. We need our taste buds tempted and teased and wanting more. The content and presentation of the appetizer also sets the tone of the meal. Even if we eat it in an isolation booth we can tell where it probably comes from; a Michelin-starred restaurant, a humble ethnic café, a loving home kitchen, or a generic fast-food franchise. It is the same with a story. Even if we have no idea about the writer or their body of work, if any, by the time we’ve reached the “end of the beginning”, we should know roughly where we are in the genre spectrum, and we should have had a taste of what the story is fundamentally about.

The characters, the setting, and the plot are the main course. Together these elements combine to make a filling and satisfying story.

Just as a main course usually contains several elements, a short story needs several characters. Even in what appear to be single-character stories, there are interactions so either aspects of the protagonist or objects in the story’s world function as other characters. It’s much like the way a well-made one-dish meal still has an interplay of flavour and texture. The characters should be well defined and rounded, fleshed out so that your reader can visualize them and hear their voices.

The setting should be unmistakable; take the reader into the world of your story by tickling their six senses – yes, six senses!

There is the outer world of sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound – but there is an inner world of thought, fear, love, anger. The setting can be likened to the style of cuisine you’re working in. It creates atmosphere but it also puts things that don’t belong out of reach. Just as even in “fusion” cuisine there must be internal harmony and logic, even in an imaginary setting, your worldview needs to hold together.

All short stories have a plot, even if it’s not an obvious one. 

The plot forms the structure of your story; the foundation that keeps the road from beginning through middle to end from crumbling, the same way that a badly-planned meal will fail as a dining experience, no matter how well executed.

Even if, in life, everything doesn’t happen for a reason, in fiction, it must.

In a really satisfying meal, we often want to pause between the main course and dessert, to reflect and savour. So let’s take a moment here to think about some aspects that are common to all the “courses”.  Everything we eat nourishes us physically, and every story we read should nourish our spirits. The story’s theme, what we want the reader ultimately to get out of it, is its “nutritional” value, and without a strong theme, a story really is just empty calories. The writing style encompasses all the “gastronomic” aspects; tastes, textures, temperatures, and presentation, all of which affect how the diner’s experience. The preparation can either enhance or degrade both the nutrition and the eating quality of even the best ingredients. And it’s the same with the story; bad writing will waste good ideas the same way bad cooking can waste good ingredients.

Are you ready for dessert? The dessert is the conclusion, the end of the story, and it needs to be delicious and savoured.

Just as desserts often have more artistry than any other part of the meal, the ending of a story often requires the most painstaking craftsmanship. It needs to harmonize with everything that came before, yet still have an impact. Even in a story without an obvious resolution, the conclusion should leave the reader with the sense of a whole experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t leave doubts, but it does mean that they need to make sense, that in some way the uncertainty needs to be part of what the story means.  Above all, you need to satisfy your readers and make them want to come back for another meal from your kitchen.

By Cindy DeJager

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