5 Important Elements of a Short Story

A short story is a short work of fiction. Fiction, as you know, is prose writing about imagined events and characters. Prose writing differs from poetry in that it does not depend on verses, meters or rhymes for its organization and presentation.

Novels are another example of fictional prose and are much longer than short stories. Some short stories, however, can be quite long. If a a short story is a long one, say fifty to one hundred pages, we call it a novella.

American literature contains some of the world's best examples of the short story. Readers around the world enjoy the finely crafted stories of American writers such as O. Henry, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe.

What makes these authors such remarkable short story writers? They are true masters at combining the five key elements that go into every great short story: character, setting, conflict, plot and theme.

The ELLSA web-site uses one of these five key elements as the focus of each of the five on-line lessons in the Classics of American Literature section. In each lesson, you will explore a single American short story from the USIA Ladder Series and discover how the author uses a certain element.

The definitions on the right are repeated on the first page of each short story lesson.

map of ELLSA: American Literary Classics

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contents: American Literary Classics

March 22, 2004


A character is a person, or sometimes even an animal, who takes part in the action of a short story or other literary work.

see The Green Door by O. Henry

The setting of a short story is the time and place in which it happens. Authors often use descriptions of landscape, scenery, buildings, seasons or weather to provide a strong sense of setting.

see The Last Leaf by O. Henry

A plot is a series of events and character actions that relate to the central conflict.

see The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

The conflict is a struggle between two people or things in a short story. The main character is usually on one side of the central conflict.

On the other side, the main character may struggle against another important character, against the forces of nature, against society, or even against something inside himself or herself (feelings, emotions, illness).

see To Build a Fire by Jack London

The theme is the central idea or belief in a short story.

see The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry