Not too long ago, I heard a real life tale of woe which reminded me of “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant. For anyone who didn’t read it during school, this little gem has a memorable main character, a setting in old Paris, both internal and external conflict, and a plot which can be either satisfying or disturbing. Oh, and its strong point is its cautionary theme. I’ve read any number of novels which did not have as many literary elements as “The Necklace.” Is it the best short story ever? I don’t know, but I’d put it in the running.
So, what’s the competition for best short story? There are many, but some my favorites include Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?” which is long on plot, but it also has a nifty historical setting and enough characterization to keep readers interested. Others which have great plots include “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, a marvelous adventure story which has often been the springboard for a number of movies. Any time the plot of a movie or television show includes a human being hunted by another, I always think of Connell’s version. Another story which has a dramatic plot is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” A longer, plot driven short story, but one with far more character development, as well as a beautifully rendered setting is “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier. Most people who hear the title, The Birds, think of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, which is very loosely based on the short story, but I like du Maurier’s version better.
The stories I’ve mentioned thus far are frequently anthologized, so I posted links to them. But, before I leave the topic of best short stories, I must include some science fiction, which is a favorite genre, but one which doesn’t usually make it into anthologies. My favorite sci fi short stories include the thematically strong “There will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury and “Feeding Time” by James E. Gunn. I love ironic plot twists, and the Gunn story has a perfect ending.
By and large, I prefer to read novel length fiction, but the short story has its place. Many writers have been masters of the short story, such as Poe and O’Henry. Like poetry, the short story is a more compressed format, so the writer has to do more with less, and that can be difficult. There are any number of ho-hum short stories, but when the author gets it right, the result is a masterpiece.