Short Stories and the Three "O's"


by Gary Hoffman


Ok, probably every writer in the United States wants to write the great American novel.  Great idea!  If you're one of them, hope you make it!  But, before you get into that rat race, I'd like to encourage you to try your hand at short stories.  Because they're shorter?  Easier to write? 

Well, they are shorter, but the easier to write part is a little on the "iffy" side.


When Mark Twain was asked about the length of his novel Huckleberry Finn, he said, "If I'da had more time, I'da made it shorter."


So why write short stories?  John M. Floyd, one of the best living short story writers in the country today, compiled this list:


1.       The short story lets you (the writer) know you've COMPLETED something, and that's good for the ego.

2.       If you write it and it doesn't sell, you haven't wasted months or even years of your life.

3.       It's great practice.  I can't think of a better way to develop your writing skills.

4.       Short-story editors usually respond within a few weeks, instead of an extended period of time required for a novel.

5.       You don't need to get an agent.

6.       You can sell a short story over and over again.

7.       It can allow you to build credentials for later, larger sales.

8.       It's FUN!


When I sit down to write a short story, the first things that goes through my mind are the three "O's" of writing any story.  I will first need an OBJECT that meets an OBSTACLE, and has an OUTCOME. 


An object can literally be any noun—a person, place, or thing.  Most authors choose people because they are probably the most interesting.  But, why not write your story from the point of view of a twig that has been blown off a tree in a storm and is now racing down a rain swollen creek?  How about a story from the view point of a dog trying to evade the local dog catcher?  Or a mother robin trying frantically to get one of her young back into the nest before the family's pet cat devours it?


The obstacle in the examples above are obvious—the rain swollen creek, the dog catcher, and the cat.  Obstacles—which become the conflict of your story--are usually put in three categories: 

Your object versus—

1.      Another person.

2.      Nature.

3.      Themselves.


(There are longer lists—up to thirty-six on one--but I prefer to keep things simple.) 


            How your object deals with the obstacles in their own way now leads to the outcome.  I live in a motor home and as I write this, I'm staying in a state park in Missouri.  Just down from me are three children standing on a picnic table trying to throw paper airplanes over their parent's motor home.  Perfect example of the "O's."  Object—three children.  Obstacle—motor home.  Believe me; they are trying all sorts of ways to get those planes to the other side of the vehicle!  Obstacles are meant to be surmounted.


Many obstacles deal with people clashing with other people.  Your "good guy," a protagonist, has problems with a "bad guy," an antagonist.  The protagonist wants one outcome: the antagonist wants another.  Think of boss vs. employer, husband vs. wife, boyfriend vs. girlfriend, or even a beauty queen vs. a judge.  That makes for interesting reading, but nature can deal us some real blows—no pun intended.  A person fighting a storm can make for some interesting reading.  And, of course, a person dealing with their own mind has produced some of the greatest psychological stories ever written.


An advantage of a successful outcome is the satisfaction it provides the reader, and the reader must be satisfied.  Provide an unrealistic outcome, and your reader feels cheated.  Unsatisfied readers equal no more reading of your stories.  A great dessert can wipe away the memory of a mediocre meal.  How your object handles the outcome of a story can make or break the story.  And they do not always have to win!  In real life, no one wins all the time. 

You MUST include all of the "O's" in you short stories.  A person washing dishes, putting them in the drainer and then going to the living room to watch television isn't much of a story.  The obstacle is left out.  Have a snake come out of the drain when they're finished, and you've got yourself a story!


Having that snake planted by a husband to bite and kill his wife adds to the outcome.  If the wife avoids the snake, and it bites the husband, a twist is now added to your outcome. 

Planning for the three "O's" before you write the story will greatly improve your success in having that story published.  How you handle the three "O's" is what is going to make your story yours.


 After quitting the teaching rat race for 22 years, Gary R. Hoffman now lives in a motor home, travels the North American Continent, and says "Home is where you park it!" He has published over 200 hundred short stories and has won or placed in many contests for short stories.  Visit him at