Stories to Read and Study if You Want to Write Short Fiction

If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first. Here are seven stories that I recommend to students in my online fiction writing class, MASTER THE SHORT STORY.

The School, by Donald Barthelme

“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.

Train, by Alice Munro

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?

In the Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka

“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.

Violence greets us in the first paragraph. The matter-of-fact mention of the “apparatus” and the execution provides a sense of foreboding that will, in the end, pay off handsomely.

Symbols and Signs, by Vladimir Nabokov

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

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.

The Veldt, by Ray Bradbury (listen to the reading by Leonard Nimoy), or read the text

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.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula LeGuin

A 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.

Discover more great short stories and write your own in my eight-week online class, Master the Short Story. The course begins on February 8th.