5 Short Stories That Will Make You a Better Writer

5 Short Stories That Will Make You a Better WriterI selected the five short stories below for their diversity in style and subject matter, but also because each one is a well-crafted story in its own right.

If you own any modern short story collections, some of these works are probably in there. Or, other works by these same authors will be.

Which, by the way, if you are a young writer and you don’t own any story collections yet, I highly recommend picking up one from your local bookstore, or finding a used copy online. Even if you’re a novelist, short stories provide great quick studies into the how to craft an effective story.

1. “Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace

What it’s about: There’s an accident, and a child gets hurt.

Why it’s awesome: It’s short and punchy. No, really, it will feel like someone punched you in the stomach.

What you should pay attention to:

  • What Wallace does and doesn’t tell us as readers, and the effect that has
  • The structure and style. There are only about seven sentences total in this story.
  • How the one short sentence used has a ton of impact

Where you can find it: On Esquire (for free!).

2. “How” by Lorrie Moore

What it’s about: A relationship, from beginning to end

Why it’s awesome: It’s a great example of second person POV done really, really well, and the details of the story make it feel true.

What you should pay attention to:

  • The way Moore balances dark humor and the serious subject matter
  • The devices used to show the passage of time and the progression of the relationship in the story
  • The way Moore plays with language

Where you can find it: Moore’s first short story collection, Self-Help.

3. “The Sun, The Moon, the Stars” by Junot Díaz

What it’s about: A break-up, beginning to end
Why it’s awesome: Díaz captures his narrator’s voice immediately, and although Yunior is a pretty awful person, we understand why he does what he does.
What you should pay attention to:

  • What effect does it have when Junior tells us up front, on the very first page, about his cheating?
  • How the Junior’s version of the break-up story reveals Junior’s character
  • Who or what are we, as readers, rooting for?

Where you can find it: Díaz’s story collection This is How You Lose Her

4. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates

What it’s about: A teenage girl attracts the attention of a less-than-savory man
Why it’s awesome: If you want a guide to writing a story that boils with suspense all the way through to the end, you want this one.
What you should pay attention to:

  • How the initial characterization of the main character, Connie, affects our reading of the rest of the story
  • How Oates goes about building tension

Where you can find it: Right here online (free PDF).

5. “Once in a Lifetime” by Jhumpa Lahiri

What it’s about: The narrator recalls a time in her childhood when her family hosted another family in their home; the close proximity makes tensions run high and brings secrets to light.
Why it’s awesome: Lahiri’s writing is beautiful and gripping, yet quite simple.
What you should pay attention to:

  • The language. Look at those beautiful sentences.
  • How this 2nd-person point of view differs from the point of view in Lorrie Moore’s story
  • The way Hema’s discovery at the end of the story shapes our own understanding of the piece

Where you can find it: Lahiri’s second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth

Let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any important stories. I’d love some recommendations!


14 thoughts on “5 Short Stories That Will Make You a Better Writer

  1. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” made a huge impact on me in college. I read it for my literature class and hated it because the guy was so sleazy. But then we discussed in class and my whole perspective changed and wrote a paper about it. I’ll have to check out these other stories now!

    • I read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” for a class too, and I remember my reaction to reading it for the first time was something like saying “WHAT?!” over and over again. It’s definitely a story that sticks with you.

  2. I love love love the first two stories on this list. For me, reading the short stories of Alice Munro were hugely influential. Really almost any of her stories I think I could credit for making me a better writer.

    • Those first two stories were the ones I knew HAD to be on my list. They’re both rather short, but have a huge impact when you finish reading them.

      I have to admit, I’ve never read any Alice Munro, despite that many people have recommended her. I’ll have to add her to my to-read list for real this time! Thanks!

  3. Some of the best short stories I’ve ever read are those by Luisa Valenzuela; they are full of suspense and dark things unsaid. I think the first one I ever read was “Los mejores calzados,” for which you can find plenty of fine translations around the interwebs. She was almost kidnapped in the 1970s for the things she was writing (actually: the things read between the lines).

  4. Pingback: Midnight – A Short Story (Excerpt) – Notice the Moonstone

  5. Pingback: New Reading Like a Writer Series! | Don't be "a writer."

  6. There’s also The Pedestrian by Ray Bradbury. It’s speculative fiction for the time it’s written. It follows Mr Leonard Mead on his walk through town as the only figure while everyone else sat inside. This is one of my favourite short stories, because even though it’s simple it has detail, even though the story doesn’t have magic or dragons, it still has a conflict. I’ve analysed this story many times in Highschool and by far it’s one of the best short stories I’ve read. Simple yet powerful.

  7. Highly recommend the short story collection by Nic Pizzolatto, “Between Here and the Yellow Sea.” This collection reminds you of the works of Flannery O’Connor. [On another note, Pizzolatto is the creator of the HBO anthology series, “True Detective.”] This collection is alive with raw characters and the language reflects it.

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