To become a great writer, it’s important that you spend time developing your craft. You need to write, often, working through the many challenges of mastering how to create the kind of compelling stories that readers crave. An often overlooked aspect of developing the writer’s craft is reading. Yes, you have to read in whatever genre you want to write in. What should you read? In this blog, I’m going to start with the best short stories for new authors to read.
Before jumping into the list, I’m going to define what a short story is. Typically, short stories can be read in a single focused sitting. In writing terms, looking at word count, a short story is anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 words. The upper end of that definition is a matter of opinion, length defined by the market. Some magazines/publishers put that upper limit at 7,500. Anything below 1,000, while technically a short story, fits into the “flash fiction” category.
Before writing short stories, it’s important to note, you can do whatever you want. Really. The sky is the limit, however, when seeking a publisher, it’s best to be economical. For the most part, magazines want the best work, but often favor the shorter story because this allows them to publish more stories in a given issue (provided it’s print).
Best Short Stories For New Authors: The List
“The Lottery”, By Shirley Jackson
This classic science-fiction story by master Shirley Jackson, is a master class in creating mood and manipulating overall tone. When reading “The Lottery” note how quickly you’re sucked in. Then how the tone shifts as the terrible tension escalates. This story is for any author, not just those looking to break into science fiction.
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemmingway
It’s become fashionable to reject Hemmingway, one of the good old boys of American literature. To do so, however, would be to look past this story showcasing subtext. The two characters in the story are having a conversation, but are they really talking about the issue between them? Hemingway’s fiction is stripped bare, only showing what you absolutely need, leaving a whole lot for the reader to imprint on.
“The Gift Of The Magi” by O. Henry
This story is so ingrained in our cultural narrative, it carries the familiarity of a folk story. Read this story with an eye for how quickly you, as the reader, are able to identify character motivations, needs and vulnerability. This story combines satisfying depth and beguiling simplicity.
“Murders In The Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe
It wouldn’t be a list of great short stories without including Poe, a writer who many consider to be the original mystery author, certainly someone highly influential in horror as well. This story carries all of the themes and conventions of modern detective fiction, but in their primordial form.
“The Lady With The Dog” by Anton Chekov
Chekov is brilliant. There are at least a half dozen stories I could put here but I chose this one because it demonstrates how huge themes can exist in a small package. We explore marriage, fidelity, the need for people to engage in a satisfying spiritual journey.
“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan
I was introduced to Egan about ten years ago and I remember being really drawn to her technique. Writing a short story doesn’t necessarily tie you down to a conventional narrative style. “Black Box” is among the best short stories for new authors because it truly opens the door in a liberating way.
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin
Frightening. Devastating. Enlightening. The late Ursula K. LeGuin’s work is worthy of a deep dive, but this story is unforgettable to anyone who has ever read it. A wizard with language, this tale teaches us that huge feelings, unshakable imagery and dynamic themes can come to life through economical language.
“The Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King
You’ve seen the move, right? Everyone has – or at least they should. Now take a seat to read the short story that inspired it all. Short stories, however brief, can open into much bigger worlds. Look at how much character, setting and conflict Stephen King put down on the page, giving screenwriters and directors a lot to work with in fleshing out a full movie. The lesson? A short story doesn’t limit scope.
“Brokeback Mountain” Annie Proulx
A similar lesson to the one with Shawshank although, in the case of this love story, the subject is different. I’ve always loved how Proulx story introduces us to characters, tempting us with their lives, giving room for the actors to breathe new life.
These are only a few of the best short stories for new authors to read. Call it an imperfect list (I didn’t even mention Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Issac Asimov, Kate Chopin or Charlotte Perkins Gilliam, geez). Naming only nine stories from nine authors, there is certainly room for further exploration. If one of these authors strikes you, delve into their work, read their body of work.
How To Read Short Stories Like A Writer
There is an art to reading a short story, or any fiction to that matter. To read short stories like a writer, you need to do two things at once. You need to immerse yourself in the writing (if it compels you to do so) at the same time you need to take note of what works. And what does not.
The truth is that your list of short stories could be much different. If you’re honed in on a genre you could build your reading list exclusively on science fiction, horror, or fantasy. The best short stories for new authors to read can come from anywhere.
Which of these stories have you read? What does your list look like?