Today I want to talk about short stories. I've been thinking about what my own personal criteria are for a "good short story." First, the opening two or three sentences have to engage my interest, grab me, make me want to read on. With a novel, I can hang on for a chapter or more before I'm either hooked or ready to put it back into the bag to return to the library. But with a short story, the author has to make me feel involved or intrigued right off the bat.
Then there has to be character development and enough tension in the plot to make me care what happens to the main character(s). I don't have to like them, but I have to be drawn into their story. Of course, it's a big plus for me if the prose itself flows smoothly, and especially if it is exceptionally well done. I admire and appreciate that.
I want to be able to picture what's going on. And I want a strong sense of the setting to come across, and the setting needs to be more than just a background filler that isn't essential to the story.
I prefer stories that treat the kind of universal themes--love, grief, death, redemption, etc.--of literature with a capital "L" in a complex and intelligent way. I don't want to read stories that are, per se, basically limited to gossip about romantic notions, sports or combat depictions, or crime scene investigations, for example. Those elements could be present as part of a larger tale with broader meaning.
I like metaphor and layers of meaning, but I no longer have the patience for "experimental" styles. In particular, I can't stand "postmodern" writing, full of funky characters doing far-fetched things in chaotic situations that are supposed to be witty and humorous. On the other hand, a sense of humor and of humanity are qualities that I appreciate in a short story, or any writing for that matter.
Finally, I want a satisfying ending to the story. Please note that I didn't say "a happy ending." Happy endings, in and of themselves, are fine if they make sense for the story as a whole. What I object to is a story that just trails off, so that when I reach the end, I find myself looking for another page. I also don't like stories whose ending leaves me scratching my head and saying to myself, "Huh? What was that all about?" I do want a story (or novel or movie) that stays with me, however, one that causes me to think about various questions long after the book has been closed or the movie is over.
What are your criteria for a good short story, dear readers? What are some examples of story writers who come to mind for you? I rarely get comments on these posts, but I would be very interested to know what you think.