Short Story Autopsy

How does a short story work?

Let’s dissect one and find out, (it’s only 381 words long).  This is a story I wrote and posted in a forum to demonstrate how short stories don’t necessarily have to conform to traditional notions of conflict, structure, resolution and completeness – or do they?  Writers and readers are invited to participate.

The Story:

Gone Fishing

By C.C. Kelly

He rested his cane against the wooden post and gingerly lowered himself onto the hay bale. The barn creaked and moaned as the corrugated roof expanded in the summer heat. He smiled as he wiped the sweat from his brow and ran his fingers through his thinning hair.  After all of these years, the smell of the horses, the leather works, the feed and the oil and grease from the welding machine had evaporated, only the scent of hay and weeds remained.

He stared out beyond the feed pens at the unused land and his gaze drifted unbidden to the copse of trees that marked the unchanging river.  The steady current whispering out of the golden dawn and then, once around the bend where the copse stood, it would widen and slow as the sunset sparkled off the exposed skipping stones of the riverbed.

When he was older, they went fly-fishing.

The work bench stood along the far side of the barn, unused and bare. But the vice was still attached to one end, just large enough to hold flies. As a boy, he would stand there in wide-eyed wonder staring up as his grandfather methodically and thoughtfully wound the thread, a kind, yet grim smile of determination etching his weathered face.

He stood, leaning heavily on his cane and shuffled over to the bench.  He reached out and ran his fingers across the surface, a faint oily residue clinging to his fingertips.  The tears from that last day were gone now, along with the horses, a ghostly memoir. That was the only time he had ever seen his grandfather cry.

He had been ten and looking forward to the warming weather and returning to the river. His grandfather had ruffled his hair and just said, “Soon.”  His grandfather knew that day, what he knew now.

He rested his back against the bench. His children and grandchildren gathered around the back of the collapsing farm house staring with concern toward the barn, but his attention was drawn beyond them, back to the copse of trees. He squinted and tried to focus across the sea of waving weeds. On the slight rise that faced the house, he could just make out his grandfather’s marker.

Neither of them had ever gone fishing again.


Now let’s get out the scalpel and open this thing up.  Please don’t hold back, this is a learning exercise and discussion.  Honest brutality is encouraged and you won’t hurt my feelings – honest, this isn’t a beta study.  We want to get to the heart of why short stories work and don’t, theme, metaphor, social commentary, drama, sympathy – all of it.

Any and all comments are welcome.  Let the Autopsy begin.


8 thoughts on “Short Story Autopsy

  1. For me, it’s not a short story. Obviously due to the word count – it is.. . But for me, I just read it as a scene. Old man Grandfather goes to some childhood memorium, remembers his Grandfather here, yah-yah-yah- the irony / nostalgia etc. It’s well written, compared to everybody, but in terms of succeeding and standing out I think it lacks. This is probably the point where personal pov overrides, but for me, it’s just too sentimental. Why am I reading this? It’s like something I had to read at school, comment on the feeling. I saw it back then, and I see it now, and I don’t think anyone really cares. When I read something, I want to think, fuck, that really reached me. I wasn’t expecting that. I felt a connection, and something that left an impression on my world. This here, is more fiction for the sake of fiction. No one would scrawl this with their last blood.

    Overview: What I’m reading isn’t bad writing, but it’s stuff I’ve read a million times before.

    • I do agree that a story needs to pull you in but for argument’s sake I’m not really opposed to stuff I’ve read a million times before. I want to say there’s comfort in the familiar? But it only works if, as you said, you care about the characters.

  2. There are no rules.

    I might call it a short story and someone else might call it a vignette but the point of the name is only to try to classify it and doesn’t tell us whether it works or not. It does seem the further you stray from straightforward classic story elements (character facing obstacle at its core) the more formulaic you need to be (joke (humor), puzzle (mystery), idea (SF/F), twist (horror)) to avoid diminishing the appreciate audience for the story down to almost no one.

    One might deconstruct the above to claim — aha! — it really does include the classic story elements but they are in such implied form that you’re just building a box to fit the contents rather than proving the contents fit in the box.

    For me, too vignettish to be successful or memorable but I wouldn’t bother to argue it’s “not a short story” like many would.

  3. What is a story? Character desires, cannot have, acts with tension and consequence before a resolution that involves a change. Too many people think a short story is a long story cut off. Not so. Short fiction must involve an immediate orientation for the reader, where, when, how, what and the why follows with the story. this story had a problem with time and backstory. I don’t like how these were handled. A chronological history might have worked better with tense consistency and a sense of immediacy. Earn the sentimentality with grounding for the reader and the building of tension. This does appear to read as a scene. Read “The Wig” by Udall. Now, that’s a successful short story with satisfaction for the reader. Kaye Linden

  4. I agree with the scene consensus. There’s not enough information for me to connect. But therein lies the problem with short stories: how much is enough?

    I read tons of short stories, both new and old, I think the “cut off” stereotype actually arising from stories that provide too much. The author has too much concept and the concept is not fully realized which makes the reader feel as if things got cut off too soon.

  5. How does one overcome the stigma of a ‘scene’ when writing short, especially when the story is centered more on emotion or non-traditional structures?

    Is a ‘scene’ inherently bad or somehow not a short story and if not, what is it? How should writers deal with a story that appears to fall into this category? Do ‘scenes’ offer different expectations for readers? Do they require different story elements or a different approach to them?

    And a great question Alain, how much is enough when writing short, whether it be backstory, descriptions, explanations or show versus tell? How do you make that decision as a writer?

    • It’s a scene when you’re left still not knowing anything about the characters. Like remember that scene from a movie? It’s only funny if you get the characters involved. It’s not funny if you’re watching the scene as an isolated event with no character context.

      So it’s not inherently bad it’s just something that needs to be addressed. I need character context even if it’s just a tiny bit.

  6. I felt that was a complete short story. Hell, flash fiction is 100 words. To Build a Fire by Jack London could be argued to be just a scene as well as the above. The above story had setting, a flashback, and a circle of grandfather to grandfather to complete the tale.

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