A student on an on-line short story writing course was amazed when the tutor asked the students to share their favourite writers of short stories. He had, he said - or should that be confessed? - never read a short story. Happily most writers are only too willing to learn from published work.
In one of my writing groups, we have decided to add 'Read to Write' meetings into our programme. The Book Trust website is a wonderful resource and offers a long list of downloadable short stories by well-know writers, many of them prize winners.
To help us structure our discussions, we have found the following format works very well.
General discussion points/Short Stories
1. Emotional engagement
How does the theme of the story seek to engage the reader emotionally? How far is this successful?
2. The Types of story - as described by Damon Knight in 'Creating Short Fiction' are:
Revelation or Illumination
Twist in the Tale
Story of Decision
" " Explanation
Does the story we're discussing fit into one or more of these categories?
3. First Paragraph
Does this grab your attention? If so, how is this achieved? If not, why not?
Where and when is the story set? How and when is this information conveyed?
Were you, at any time, confused about the where/when?
How are the essential facts about the characters conveyed to the reader?
How far into the story do you feel you know who they are?
Are the characters credible? If so, how is this achieved? If not, why not?
Is the background/psychology of the characters, which has a bearing on the story, appropriately conveyed?
What does the protagonist want? How are these goals/ambitions conveyed?
What are the obstacles that provide the conflict?
Is this a linear story? If not, is there a good reason and does it work?
Do you feel main elements of fiction - narration, action, dialogue - are balanced? If not, is there a good reason for this?
If there are flashbacks, how are they used? Are they successful, or an irritating intrusion into the story-line?
Do you feel the structure is well handled? Does the story's end tie in with the beginning?
Do you feel the reader's expectations have been fulfilled?
How important is what happens and what happens next?
Do you want to know what happens?
What techniques are used to move along the plot?
Is the dénouement convincing? Does it tie in with the conflict?
Does the style of writing/use of language fit with the setting/time/characters?
How well are imagery and sensual writing used?
Has the writer avoided clichés?
How do the characters 'sound'? Are their voices convincing?
How is the dialogue used? To deepen characterisation? To move along the plot?
Has the writer managed to avoid using dialogue as 'information dumps'?
Who is telling the story?
Whose point of view are we in? Is it consistent?
What tense is used? Is it the best one? Does it work?
Narrative stance - 1st/2nd/3rd person. How successful is this? How appropriate for the storyline?
When you first looked at the story, did the title interest you?
When you come to the end of the story, does the title seem appropriate and well-chosen?