How to critique a short story

Short stories are a popular form to write, even if we’re constantly told nobody reads them! Here are some guidelines and questions to help you give constructive feedback.

What kind of story is it? If it’s literary, what will you expect from it? e.g. not a lot of physical/external action, more internal conflict and characterization. Maybe less closure in the ending.

If it’s genre, what will you expect from it? More action, a sense of the genre through setting, story problem, strong ending/closure. Does it feel too familiar, or has it managed to bring something different or original to the usual stories in that genre?

If it’s not a genre you read, you can still focus on the sense of action, character, dialogue and setting – don’t chicken out.

Opening – what engages you in the beginning? Could it have a better first line? More in the first paragraph? Are there story hooks in the first paragraphs? What makes you want to keep reading? If you are not interested in reading on, why not? What is missing? What has the writer done instead? Some writers use a “runway” and the story starts on page 2 or 3.

Is it clear who the main character is? The POV? Where the story is taking place? Is there enough setting and detail to help you imagine the world? Are there info dumps? Has the writer threaded in the details well enough?

Is there a clear antagonist? What is creating conflict in the story? Does the conflict interest you – why or why not? How would you increase conflict (without being melodramatic)?

Is there a sense of the story developing? Do you feel drawn in? Halfway through, do you want to keep reading? Why or why not?

Is there a climax or an epiphany or realization of some kind? What is it? Can you define it as the reader? Is it the highest point of the story?

What happens at the end? Does it satisfy you? Is it over-explained, or not clear? Is the main story question answered?

When you have finished reading the story, do you have a sense of theme? Do you know what the writer was trying to show you?

Looking back, can you identify any holes, slow passages, things that didn’t work for you? Can you say why they didn’t work? (Answering this kind of question is what helps you as a writer.)

Reading short stories will certainly help you to provide a more useful critique. I read Best American Short Stories and Best Australian Short Stories as a starting point, and then have my favorite writers. Reading as a writer is always going to feed into your own work.

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  1. Thanks, Sherryl – this is a very useful blog post! 🙂 I’m having great fun writing short stories (Flash Fiction). What a great way to fly! I’ve set up a Flash Fiction Challenge (52-weeks) so I’m having to fly, whether I like it or not. 🙂

    • What’s flash fiction and what’s a flash fiction challenge?

      • Flash fiction is a short short story, usually under 750 words. The challenge is something that runs on FB (and in other places but FB is the only place I have seen it) – you challenge yourself to write a flash fiction every week for a year. Just something that’s fun and gives you a goal.

  2. Thanks for a very useful post.

  3. Lucille Opie says

    I will find it very useful to use with my U3A creative writing group but I need to print it out but can’t get the keyboard up with them article on my iPad?

  4. Correction of the former entry:

    Thank you, Sherryl! So far I had only one abusive critique, but lots of positive experiences with critiquers really following my needs. And outmatching them, as many critics would actually be better authors, they are just too critical, when it comes to the customer acquisition part aka readership building. 😉

    Seriously, I consider the working with critics and beta-readers a learning process for my real life, not just for the one short story. It is a bit like deciding that the 30% extra tax (to protect the USA markets) is worth it, as that market is much larger than Europe.

    All those minor steps on the way to be both, a better person and a better lil author.

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