Josh Barkan on the 3 Elements Your Mediocre Short Story is Missing

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Editor's Note:

Josh Barkan earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University. He is the author of Mexico, a collection of short stories. He joins Signature to discuss the three essential elements to a great short story.

Here are three things in great short stories that are frequently missing in the stories of my MFA students, or in the stories of aspiring writers: sufficient conflict; access to the interior consciousness of the protagonist; and something strange, quirky, or truly unusual that the reader wants to read about.

How many times have you sat down to either read your own story-in-progress or the story of a fellow student or friend, and found it simply boring? We are reluctant to tell that friend that their story may be well crafted in some ways, but is simply not interesting us. Often, the problem is just a lack of conflict. The antagonists don’t push back hard enough against your protagonist. They never force your protagonist to confront their genuine, internal flaws.

Consider a great story like Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs.” The protagonist, Earl, has problems stacked up all around him. He’s just stolen a car after writing bad checks. He stole a flashy car that will be more noticeable to cops. He’s far from the state he’s trying to escape to, Florida, when the engine light flashes on his dashboard. He has a young daughter with him (not your typical crook getaway partner), and the woman that has been his partner the last couple of years drinks hard in the middle of the day in the car, with her feet on the dashboard, while she tells the story of how she once won a monkey in a bet from a Vietnam vet and she let the monkey die through neglect.

More than all of these external problems, the important internal problem is that Earl has been a dreamer—just like his neglectful partner. He’s always thinking there is a pot of gold he can get—something for nothing. And where his car breaks down, in Wyoming, there is a real goldmine that forces him to realize he has been chasing dreams. Add to this that his girlfriend leaves him by the end of the story, and he’s forced to steal another car, all while he realizes his predicament, and you have the amount of conflict necessary to pull the reader along. There are things truly at stake in the story because of the conflict: Earl’s freedom and whether he’ll go to prison; the safety of his daughter, and the bigger issue of how someone fundamentally good may go bad because the socio-economic deck has been stacked against him.

Great short stories give us access to the interior consciousness of the protagonist. Earl vacillates about whether he is to blame for his life of crime or whether he is somehow a victim. On the victim side, he recalls the poverty he grew up in and the lack of care his parents gave him. He thinks, likewise, about how his partner didn’t mean to kill the monkey she stole—it was an accident, as she tied the monkey up to a doorknob, using a string that was too short. Earl thinks about how his intentions are good. He knows he means well. And at the same time, after his car breaks down, he wanders off to a trailer by the goldmine next to him and he speaks to a nice woman who is taking care of her brain-damaged grandchild. Here, too, is someone who has been given misfortune. But rather than turn to crime, the grandmother takes careful steps to help her grandchild, and her husband works hard in the goldmine, trying to save up for retirement. Earl is forced to think about the difference between his path and the path of this grandmother.

The contrast leads him to talk with his partner about the way he chases a pot of gold and how the two are just a pair of “fools.” The end of the story has Earl imagining whether others can know what it is like to be in his shoes, as he gets ready to steal yet another car.

Without the interior consciousness, it is hard to see what your protagonist is learning about their predicament, or how they are trying to escape from their difficult situation.

What you may have noticed by now is that there are some definite elements of quirkiness and oddness in the story:

How did a monkey from a Vietnam vet suddenly appear in this story?—won in a bet and then neglected.

What is an African-American grandmother doing with a brain-damaged child in the middle of a very white part of Wyoming? (A kindly grandmother who is going to teach Earl the wrongs of his path.)

How did a goldmine happen to be right next to where Earl’s car breaks down? Readers like strange coincidences in short stories. Even if describing everyday events, look for the strange detail, the strange moment. The town of Rock Springs is booming with crime and prostitutes, with the money of the goldmine. It is being overrun with people making “bad” decisions. It is strangely booming, yet falling apart, just as Earl’s car breaks down outside of the town.

With sufficient conflict, access to the interior consciousness, and strangeness, your story can be great.