The House Rules of the American Short Story Matt Briggs Craft

build The House Rules of the American Short Story

by Matt Briggs

Published in Issue No. 49 ~ June, 2001

If you follow these rules, you are guaranteed to produce an American
Short Story Masterpiece.

  1. Begin with both feet on the ground. Grab the reader by the throat
    and don’t let go until they are gasping for breath or pass out.
    Clearly identify in your own mind, “What is at stake for the
    protagonist?” (see item 3)

  2. The story must be short since it is a short story. It can be long,
    but really short is better. Short is fifteen pages.

  3. There must be a protagonist who is a likeable, if conflicted,
    person, recognizable as a human being.

  4. Protagonist must undergo a change in a dramatic scene chased by
    lyric passage of descriptive prose. Run this test: Is the character
    different at the end of the story? Wearing a fresh laundered pantsuit
    doesn’t count. We will call this moment “the epiphany” and it
    must occur on page thirteen of the fifteen page short story.

  5. Significant stories take place in real places, in real settings
    using realistic situations. To make your story fun or flaunt the idea
    of a “significant short story” throw in something off-the-wall, like a
    talking otter driving a 1976 Buick Regal. If asked about the otter
    driving a 1976 Buick Regal, use the word “allegorical.”

  6. Use the house style, that is, no adverbs, few adjectives, and keep
    your sentences spare and in decent order. Repeat: Subject. Verb.
    Direct Object. A story isn’t true, so it’s best to use
    honest language.

  7. Contemplate the following maxims:
    1. Show; don’t tell.
    2. Less is More.
    3. Nothing is new under the sun.

Once finished with your story, you will have an American Short Story

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Matt Briggs is the author of The Remains of River Names, published by Black Heron Press. His stories have appeared in The Northwest Review, The North Atlantic Review, StringTown, The Mississippi Review, ZYZZYVA and elsewhere. Essays have been in The Washington Free Press, The Raven Chronicles, and The American Book Review. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.