Tuesday, September 30, 2014


To my blog post readers, the following is my talk today at a meeting of the Writers’ Circle, a club I started seven years ago. This may be too elementary for most of you, but, as you’ll see, some writers don’t know the difference between memoirs and stories, and perhaps you’ll find something of value in this.

Many of you may have entered the News & Views Short Story contest. Some may have entered it last year too. The winner and finalists were published in News & Views throughout the year. Like some of you, I was a finalist, but, perhaps unlike you, I noticed - on reading the stories when they were published - that most were not stories, but memoirs.

Why do I say that? Because they sounded like someone telling me about an event in their lives, an event that really happened, instead of a made-up story.

Apparently the News & Views judges felt the same way I did, that the entries were not stories, but memoirs. How do I know that? Because this year they required the writer to include three specific elements in the story they entered: an annoying boss, a bikini and a fake illness. Since it was unlikely a writer really experienced an event containing all three elements, it seems to me they were trying to encourage writers to write “made up” stories, not memoirs, real things that happened to them.

It’s obviously too late for my advice today to show up in that contest entry. However, Writers Circle holds a contest every year too and when we say we want “Fiction,” we mean Fiction, which Websters dictionary defines as ”something invented by the imagination, an invented story.”

Therefore, if you turn in something with the pronoun “I," the judges have been instructed to consider that “non-fiction” meaning something not invented, but true, and they will put it with “non-Fiction.”

Now, it’s possible to write fiction in the first person, that is, using the pronoun “I.” I’ve written novels that way myself. So how does a reader know if the material is a memoir, or a short story written in first person? Well, one obvious clue will be the subject matter. If I write as if I’m a Private Eye, or a mass murderer or the president of a large country, you can be sure it’s fiction. But if there’s any doubt, be aware the judges may decide it’s a memoir.

So let’s define Short story versus Memoir. What’s needed to be sure it’s a story?

1. Pronoun. Stories generally describe characters as “he” or “she”, not “I”.

2. The plot. What happens in a story is generally very different from ordinary life. Not always, but usually. And those are the stories people “usually” prefer to read. Think of the popularity of what’s called “genre” fiction:

Romance, where the girl meets the Billionaire who falls in love with her and they marry and live happily ever after.

Mystery. Someone is killed and a smart sleuth figures out “whodunit.” Justice is served.

Thriller. A bad person wants to take over the world, but someone else prevents it and saves humanity.

Science Fiction. A strange new world is invented where strange things happen. Even if there’s romance or mystery, too, the strange world makes it fiction, not memoir.

If you read a book or attend a class, or a writing workshop which teaches how to write a short story, you will probably be taught what I was a long time ago. Namely,

(1) a character has a problem or goal or desire.

(2) the character is unable to reach this goal because of obstacles.

(3) the character tries - maybe many times - to succeed and finally he either reaches his goal and has a “happy ending” or he fails and has an “unhappy” ending.

What are the possible obstacles to achieving his goal?

(A) Man against man. Hero against a bad guy.

(B) Man against nature. He’s on a mountain and a blizzard comes up.

(C) Man against himself. He has a character flaw he must correct before he can win the job or the girl.

Read some short stories in anthologies until it becomes clear what a short story is. Deadline for entries is our February WC meeting. Good luck.


  1. HI Phyllis,

    Great insight as usual. Short stories fascinate me. I've never taken a course on shorts, but have a feel for them. Capote's twists, Chekov's telling the truth (in his fictional world). If I were judging I'd look for that laser focus and expect to be surprised one way or another.


    1. Bob: Thanks for the comment. Short stories used to be everywhere (shows how old I am!) but then Harlequin started paying more for novels than magazines paid for stories and writers switched. At least that's my story.


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