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How to Write a Short Story

By Gina Ochsner

Baby with typewriter

Writing is an act of faith. Writing represents the earnest belief that if words are cared for, labored over, brooded over, they will matter. Those words will represent ideas and images that in turn corral and suggest corollary ideas and images. In short, writers believe that a universe of thought made tangible will spring up at the suggestion of something so flimsy as a string of words. What folly. What faith.

But we persist in it: the folly and the faith, not just hoping, but believing that some image we have in mind, if clothed in the most exact and vivid words, will conjure a similar image within the imagination of our readers ā€” who, by the way, engage in their own act of faith merely by reading. This is the heart of a story: image, or a series of images resounding pure and true as the peal of a bell melting in the distance.

This is why the master writers Flaubert and Chekhov stressed the use of detail within their own work and the work of their students. Likewise, it's no accident that in almost every textbook or manual or guide on fiction writing one of the first chapters is devoted to the importance and use of detail in writing. A detail in a scene or a description might appear to be a small matter, just as a single word in a sentence appears to bear little weight when examined apart from the whole. But like blood in the veins, the astonishing and unexpected detail delivers life and texture to the scene, a description of setting, or character.

Gina Ochsner teaches fiction in Seattle Pacific University's creative writing M.F.A. program. She is the author of two collections of short fiction and a novel, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).