Symbols and Signs, by Vladimir Nabokov
Read for Module 1 - Characterization
For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none.
As the old saying goes in fiction, character is desire. So what to make of a character who has no desires? Nabokov is a stellar example of sustaining narrative drive by breaking the rules and remaking them. In paragraph three, we’ll arrive at this realization: That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. Trouble is the life blood of fiction. This family has plenty.
The Looking Glass, by Anton Chekhov
Optional Reading for Module 1 - Characterization
New Year’s Eve. Nellie, the daughter of a landowner and general, a young and pretty girl, dreaming day and night of being married, was sitting in her room, gazing with exhausted, half-closed eyes into the looking-glass. She was pale, tense, and as motionless as the looking-glass.
A short story requires a particular character in a specific moment in time. Chekhov shows how it’s done in this opening sentence, which cuts to the heart of the character and situation.
Train, by Alice Munro
Read for Module 2 - Point of View
This is a slow train anyway, and it has slowed some more for the curve. Jackson is the only passenger left, and the next stop is about twenty miles ahead.
A great short story poses questions right out of the starting gate, and Munro poses plenty in this opening line. Why is the train slow? Why has it slowed? Who is Jackson? What will happen at the next stop, or will he even make it to the next stop?
While this story is a wonderful study in plot, it also demonstrates the deft use of a particular kind of third person point of view.
The School, by Donald Barthelme
Read for Module 3: Structure“The School” is one of my favorites. A group of school children face one tragedy after another in this morbidly funny short-short. A mini crash course in story structure.
Read for Module 4 - Description
Creepiest. Story. Ever. Written long before virtual reality was a thing, this classic by one of the most prolific and imaginative American writers plumbs the depths of filial betrayal.
In the Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka
Read for Module 5 - Plot
“It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer to the Traveller, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar. It appeared that the Traveller had responded to the invitation of the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been asked to attend the execution of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior. Of course, interest in the execution was not very high even in the penal colony itself.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, by Ernest Hemingway
Read for Module 6 - Dialogue
In this classic story told almost entirely in dialogue, Hemingway demonstrates the importance of what remains unsaid between characters.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula LeGuin
Read for Module 7 - Voice and ThemeA lyrical and disturbing morality tale that compels readers to examine the limits of their own compassion, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas also provides a lesson in the use of the communal voice in fiction.
Read for Module 8 - Revision
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
Read the unedited draft of Carver's story in The New Yorker for Module 8 - Revision. We'll be comparing a few of the unedited paragraphs with the final version.
Read the final published version in the story collection that made Carver famous, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories.
Comparing the two shows how deeply influential editor Gordon Lish was on Carver's work and begs the question, Would Carver have become one of our best-known story writers without his collaboration with Lish? The comparison also demonstrates how much difference line-edits make!
Other Stories You Might Enjoy
Orientation, by Daniel Orozco (demonstrates the use of the second person point of view)
Stuff, by Joy Williams
Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov
Four in Prose, by Diane Williams
Between Stars, by Benjamin Kolp
How to Become a Writer, by Lorrie Moore
More resources for stories online:
The online fiction archives of The Kenyon Review
Read first lines of recently published stories from Glimmer Train