Teaching the Short Story- 2011 Workshop

Presenter: John A. McDermott

Introduction: Why Teach the Craft? 

Teaching creative writing is primarily geared to unlocking the imaginative potential of our student-writers, but it is also—perhaps even more importantly—aimed at honing the critical faculties of student-readers.  Through practicing the art form, students are directed toward more involved reading and understanding of the stories they encounter.  Practicing student-writers, with some luck, become more careful, knowledgeable, and passionate readers.

The first thing we need to tackle is the inevitable question, what is a short story?  “Short” is a relative term, of course.  “Story,” too, can be a wiggly creature to pin down. We’ll turn to Poe for the first attempts at defining the “short story” and go from there.

For the purposes of the STAAR test, we’re going to focus on the short-short story, the condensed cousin of the short story, also known as flash fiction.


Get Them Reading First

We can look at classic texts, such as Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” and John Cheever’s “Reunion,” but there are countless contemporary examples which may speak more directly to our students’ lives.  Let’s consider more recent work by authors such as George Saunders, Thisbe Nissen, Lydia Davis, and others.

You can also find numerous examples from literary journals.  There are even journals that focus on the short-short form,  such as Quick Fiction and Brevity (a nonfiction site but good for studying narratives under 750 words).

You could also find anthologies from young adult collections, such as Megan McCafferty’s Sixteen or Michael Chabon’s Amazing Stories.


Teach Them the Ingredients

Before we get to writing, let’s review what goes into literary fiction.  We’ll begin with the essential elements of narrative (journey/desire/conflict/change).

Let’s also do a quick reminder of the numerous elements at work in fiction, including, but not limited to: point of view, character, plot, dialogue, exposition, structure, chronology, era, tone, setting, and scene vs. summary.


Get Them Writing

Lastly, let’s write and have a quick workshop discussion, where we can discuss effective ways to run a creative writing conversation…

…but since a workable draft is really only step one…

Revise, Revise, Revise

Students will often come to fiction under the delusion that art is effortless, that revision might be for research papers, but stories are born fluid.  Let’s disabuse them of that idea.

What about evaluation concerns?  How do you grade art? The key here is to get them to understand that matters of technique are different than matters of taste. You might also want to address such issues as the deliberate use of non-standard dialect in the first-person point of view.  How much can the writer get away with?  What does the audience need or expect?

Unique to our STAAR concerns might be, “How the heck do you revise a story written for an examination?”  Maybe we should talk about that.



On the web there are a number of great indices for literary journals, www.newpages.com my favorite among them, though the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) has a great one too.

My favorite way to find new authors is to read journals, but that’s not necessarily the way to find teen appropriate work.  The journals do publish work our students would find appealing, but the audiences for journals is primarily literary, primarily adult.

My favorite journals: Tin House, Mid-American Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Southeast Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review (great website and a special section devoted to young writers).  The list is nearly endless.