Great American Short Stories: A Guide for Writers and Readers
Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college. She graduated summa cum laude from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a dual degree in Music and English. She studied under Jane Smiley for her M.A. in Fiction and Essay Writing at Iowa State University and received her Ph.D. in 19th-Century British and American Literature from The Ohio State University. Among her awards for teaching and writing, she was named a Fulbright Scholar to Slovenia, where she taught the American novel and creative writing. She was the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council individual artist award and was twice the recipient of the Faculty Student Life Award, the most prestigious teaching award at St. Mary's, selected by the students themselves. She was awarded Mellon Foundation grants on three separate occasions, and she won a gold medal in the national 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards contest for an anthology she edited. Nebraska Wesleyan University has named her a Distinguished Alumna and an Outstanding Graduate. Professor Cognard-Black's publications are extensive and eclectic, reflecting her intellectual background as both a writer and a literary critic. She is the author of numerous books, has published her essays and short fiction in a number of journals, and she has appeared on NPR.
01: “Come In Here”: How Stories Draw Us In
Begin your exploration of American short stories with a look at one of the form’s most important features: the opening sentence. Learn the four P’s (people, place, perspective, and problem) and how they can help build a strong opening to a story. Then listen to multiple examples of first sentences and their various strengths and weaknesses.
02: Discovering the American Short Story
What defines a short story? And what makes American short stories unique? Take a look at some features and definitions that help explain the form and its boundaries, while also learning how the form has changed over time. You’ll also get a partial reading list that will allow you to explore some of the greatest authors of different styles and eras.
03: The Storytelling Instinct in America
Storytelling can help us find meaning in chaos, foster empathy, and share lessons and values across generations. Look back into the past and see how oral and print cultures came in contact with each other in the Americas, creating a hybrid form of storytelling that continues into the present day.
04: Storytelling and American Mythos
After the Revolutionary War, American authors sought to forge their own national literary traditions. Examine the emergence of the short story as a patently American genre, beginning with the “sketches” of writers like Washington Irving. Along the way, you will see how writers have shaped the American mythos—the stories that tell us who we are.
05: Sentimental Fiction and Social Reform
Can stories change the way we look at the world? In the mid-19th century, many Americans believed you could use fiction to shape public opinion and morality. Look at the tradition of sentimental fiction and the writers that mastered the tools of emotion and empathy, focusing especially on the ways women contributed to the field.
06: The Rise of Realism in American Fiction
Realism dominated American short fiction from the end of the Civil War until the outbreak of World War I. See how four decades of social upheaval and the rise of print journalism motivated the rise of the “boys’ club” of realist writers, in opposition to the more feminine-influenced sentimental fiction of earlier decades.
07: American Modernists
The rise of modernism in the early 20th century was a self-conscious reaction to realism. Reflecting the rapid changes of the time, modernist short stories have an intentionally fragmented, staged feeling that many writers felt made the work more “literary.” Examine the work of modernist writers like William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Toomer.
08: Contemporary American Storytelling
Ernest Hemingway remains the single most influential short story writer of the 20th century. Disillusioned by World War I and heavily influenced by the objectivity of journalism, Hemingway changed the American short story—and possibly the American identity. Consider how this one writer revolutionized short fiction and influenced countless other authors.
09: Setting or Donnée in American Short Fiction
Shift from the history of American short fiction to the technical aspects of the form with a look at how writers build verisimilitude into their story worlds. Professor Cognard-Black guides you through several stories with different settings—or, more specifically, données—and shows how the writers convey time and place as well as mood, atmosphere, symbolism, and more.
10: The Use of Detail in American Short Fiction
What is the difference between fact and truth, and why does this distinction matter in fiction? Discover how writers use certain details to inform readers about the inner life of the characters and look closely at why the facts in a short story are never random. Works by Toni Morrison, James Thurber, and Lee K. Abbott demonstrate different levels of detail.
11: Character: Who You Are in the Dark
Creating characters that feel true to life means going below the surface and revealing their inner dimensions. Using the FAT principle of fiction (Feelings, Actions, and Thoughts) and looking at three major errors in fiction writing, compare and contrast flat, stock characters with the deeper characters that stick with readers long after the story has ended.
12: American Dialogue and Interior Monologue
Crafting good dialogue means listening to how real people talk, but also understanding that speech in a story is fundamentally different from the real thing. Using exercises from both real life and fiction, learn how purposeful dialogue can be crafted. Then, look at how internal monologue works and how it serves to reveal character in important ways.
13: Standing Apart: The Third Person
See why the point of view of a story is one of the most important choices a writer can make. Different perspectives create different reactions in the reader, and the third person has three distinct variations that allow writers to determine the level of objectivity and distance a story needs to create the best effect. Consider several examples and how they work.
14: Standing Close: The First and Second Person
There is power and there is peril in the first- and second-person perspectives. Both create close relationships with the story and both promote immediacy and empathy. However, they also have dangers that can derail a story if not handled properly. Explore both the first- and second-person perspectives and their effect on readers.
15: Plot: What Characters Do Next
Instead of looking at plot as a clearly defined journey from point A to point B, here you will see why plot should be dictated by characters and their choices. Understand how good short stories strike a balance between structure and (seeming) randomness to capture something that feels meaningful and true to life.
16: Imagery in American Short Fiction
Vivid imagery is crucial to good storytelling. Professor Cognard-Black takes you through several examples to see how sensory and figurative language can help create an immersive experience. Along the way, you will get useful introductions to tools like personification, allusion, symbolism, metaphor, and other literary devices through writers like Flannery O’Connor.
17: Style in Traditional American Short Stories
Compare and contrast two iconoclastic American writers, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, to see how style encompasses every aspect of an author’s writing, from word choice and sentence length to syntax and punctuation. You’ll also receive a list of writing handbooks that can help you explore style.
18: Experimental American Short Stories
How is writing fiction like making a quilt? Turn your attention to the innovative short fiction that emerged in the turbulent years after World War II to find the answer. Look at the deconstructionist approach to short stories, focusing particularly on metafiction, and then explore the use of voice to create both intimacy and scope simultaneously.
19: Genre Short Fiction in America
Though genre fiction has a reputation for being frivolous or commercial, it has been an important part of America’s literary tradition since the 19th century. Focusing on the “big three” genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, you will see how genre fiction has grappled with the same issues and concerns as literary fiction, simply through different means.
20: Graphic Short Fiction in America
Short stories in the 21st century have broken out of traditional constraints of size and form to include more experimental modes, as you will explore here with graphic short fiction. Discover how visual storytelling works in short fiction and why the images and words must work together in ways that go beyond mere illustration.
21: Postmodern Short Fiction in America
While the postmodern era is hard to define, the features of postmodern fiction are rooted in artifice and hyperawareness. Consider how the “meta-experience” of postmodernism is created by going against the traditional ideas of immersion and author invisibility, and investigate how different authors accomplish this tricky balancing act.
22: American Microfictions
While the accepted length of a short story has always been somewhat vague, here you will see what kinds of storytelling feats can be accomplished with a drastically limited word count. Dive into microfictions written by Professor Cognard-Black and her writing students to see how even the briefest pieces can contain entire narrative worlds.
23: Short Story Endings
How can writers create endings that are both authentic to life and satisfying to readers? Reflect on endings from various short stories and see how they have changed over time. Also consider the ways writers create a sense of closure in fiction that never really happens in everyday life, yet feels authentic to human experience.
24: A Hundred False Starts
Even the greatest writers experience failure; the key is to fail creatively. Professor Cognard-Black closes the course with a look at the nature of publishing in today’s market, as well as how false starts and unfinished work can be a crucial part of the process of successful, fulfilling writing. As the careers of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others demonstrate, the most important skill a writer—or a reader—can have is perseverance.