Some people see short stories as somehow lesser than novels: charcoal sketches compared to the massive oil canvases. But this medium, when written with great skill and care, is capable of having just as great an impact on readers as any 300-page tome. In just a few pages, great short stories can just as effectively make you cry, laugh, or even think…
In this post, we’re listing some of the most interesting short stories that will challenge how you think or feel.
1. “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
First published in 1961, Vonnegut’s satirical story imagines a future in which America’s quest for egalitarianism has resulted in laws preventing anyone from being “better than average.” Our title character is born strong, handsome and intelligent — and in order to make him equal to others, he is given golf-style “handicaps.” He has to wear glasses that make it hard for him to see (and that give him headaches). He has to wear weighted clothes and a rubber mask to counteract his strength and good looks.
The US Declaration of Independence states as a self-evident truth that “all Men are created equal,” but in Vonnegut’s story, that idea is extrapolated to an absurd degree — offering some answers that may be uncomfortable to us.
2. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Better known as the basis for the film Arrival, this award-winning story from Ted Chiang is, in the best way possible, Independence Day for grown-ups. It’s narrated by Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with communicating with aliens who have arrived on Earth. As the story progresses, we learn that the aliens don’t experience time sequentially (one event at a time) but all at once — they are as aware of the future as they are of the present. This insight forces Louise to face some heavy questions, such as: if there are creatures who already know the future, what does that mean for free will?
3. “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
While not exactly a philosophical or political tale like our first two examples, this twisty short story from Dahl does delve into some shady moral territory. We are introduced to Mary Maloney: a loving wife and dedicated homemaker. In just a few short paragraphs describing how she welcomes her husband home, Dahli makes us sympathize with Mary — before a rash act turns her life upside down and takes the reader with her on a dark journey.
For those who haven’t read it, we won’t spoil the rest. However, it’s safe to say that Dahl serves up a fiendish twist on a platter.
4. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
A perennial feature in many a high school syllabus, Shirley Jackson’s best-known short story clinically details an unusual ritual that takes place in a small town. There’s not exactly a lot of plot to spoil in The Lottery — but within a few short pages, Jackson manages to represent the mob mentality that can drive reasonable people to commit heinous acts.
5. “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore
Told in the second person point of view, this story from Moore’s debut anthology Self-Help takes an honest look at the inner life of a struggling artist. Through the use of an unusual POV, the author manages to turn her reader into a confidante — making it abundantly clear that the ‘you’ the narrator is speaking about is actually herself.
This entire collection is well worth a read for its insight, humor, and disregard for literary norms.
6. “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” by Junot Diaz
Speaking of second-person narratives… check out this Junot Diaz story, which ran in the New Yorker in 1995. While it superficially takes the form of dating advice, the piece is a vivid immersion into the sort of code-switching that’s common in urban melting pots. The narrator tells the (presumably Dominican) reader what to do when they’re courting girls of different races — what parts of their own culture to hide (and when to do it). It’s a fascinating look into aspects of identity politics that mainstream culture often glosses over.
7. “Other People” by Neil Gaiman
This fan favorite from the American Gods author takes its title from Satre’s No Exit — a play set in an afterlife where three strangers are trapped in a room together. Over the course of their increasingly antagonistic interaction, they discover that “hell is other people.” Gaiman’s short story gives this concept a sharp twist and focuses on the idea of guilt and punishment, presenting only two characters: a man and his mysterious, demonic torturer.
For a treat, why not check out this video of the author reading the “Other People” in front of a live audience?
8. “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian
In the Social Media Age, no short story has gone viral the way this New Yorker contribution from Roupenian has. Arriving at the height of #MeToo, it begins with 20-year-old Margot embarking on the early stages of flirtation with an older man, Robert. As she gets to know more about this man (as well as filling in the gaps with her imagination), the power dynamic in their relationship starts to fluctuate.
Lauded for its portrayal of Margot’s inner life and the fears many modern women face when it comes to dating, it also has its fair share of detractors — many are critical of the central character, some are downright outraged by the story’s success. Still, this story undeniably struck a chord with the reading public, and will likely remain relevant for some time.
9. “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
A samurai has been found murdered in a bamboo grove. So opens the best-known work from Japan’s undisputed master of the short story (the country’s leading literary prize is named after him, don’t ya know?). Through three conflicting witness accounts — from a woodcutter, a bounty hunter, and an old woman — the story raises the important question of subjectivity when it comes to how we perceive truth.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film adaptation, Rashomon, has since become a byword for stories told by multiple unreliable narrators — but this is the story that started it all. Now the very device of retelling a story from multiple perspectives has become a trope in its own right, appearing in just about every cop show under the sun.
10. “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov
No list of short stories would be complete without an entry from the Russian master. In “Gooseberries,” which acclaimed short story writer (and Booker-winning novelist) George Saunders cites as a personal favorite, two friends on a hunting trip get rained on and take refuge at a friend’s house. One of the men, Ivan, relates in disgust how his brother’s lifelong dream was to own a small estate and eat the gooseberries that he would grow outside. Ivan’s anecdote soon devolves into a full-on screed about how the pursuit of personal happiness is selfish and disgusting. And thanks to Chekhov’s skills as a writer, you might find yourself agreeing with Ivan’s points. Not exactly a comfort read...
11. “The Swimmer” by John Cheever
Once called “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” John Cheever’s most compelling works deal with middle-class struggles. He was from a generation that grew up during the Great Depression but matured into America’s post-war boom, with its picket fences, Coupe de Villes, and backyard swimming pools. And it’s those very pools that factor into Cheever’s most famous story.
Ned Merrill is a respected member of his society in an affluent neighborhood. One summer’s day, while lounging by his friend’s pool, he spontaneously decides to get home by passing through every single swimming pool between there and his own house. The story quickly grows surreal and dark. But under the strangeness of the conceit is the fraught connection between wealth and happiness in this classic story of suburban ennui.
And… thanks to the internet, you can hear the author read the story in his peculiar New England accent.
12. “A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver
One of the many fantastic stories in Carver’s Cathedral, “A Small Good Thing” finds a young mother and father in a period of shock when their son is left unconscious and after a hit-and-run. To make matters worse, they keep getting calls in the middle of the night from a shopping mall baker telling them to pick up their son’s birthday cake — a cake that might never be eaten.
While it’s true that a lot of short stories are smarter than they are humane, the final act of “A Small Good Thing” delivers a graceful moment of emotional truth: one that will likely stick with you for a while.
13. “The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami
And, while we’re on the subject of bakeries, let’s dip our toe into this story from Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, which also has a lot in common with a few other entries in this list. A couple of newlyweds in Tokyo wake up hungry in the middle of the night and decide to break into a bakery — a plan that goes awry as they eventually raid a McDonald’s.
Elements of surreal humor are mixed with discussions of free will vs. determinism in a blend that will delight fans of Murakami’s stranger works. If you grew up with Reading Rainbow, perhaps you will enjoy this reading of the story by LeVar Burton.
14. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
A plantation owner and supporter of the Confederacy stands on a bridge, awaiting his execution by Union soldiers. Recalling the circumstances that led him to this point, the narrative jumps into stream-of-conscious mode as he makes his daring escape and begins his journey back to his wife and kids.
A 1962 French adaptation of Bierce’s short story was aired in America as an episode of The Twilight Zone, which may give you a hint of what’s to come at the end of the tale.
15. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
If you’ve reached this point (and have been dutifully reading each story as they appear), then you deserve a nice, uplifting palate cleanser. So many short stories have twist endings that find our characters in awful situations that they had never expected — which is why this classic from O. Henry is such a delight. The premise is simple: it’s Christmas time and a young husband and wife are determined to find the perfect present for each other, despite their meager means.
Named after the author, The O. Henry Award is given each year to short stories of exceptional merit — just one of the many short story contests that have been established to encourage new writers to pursue this medium.
Looking to try your hand at writing your own stories? Why not give yourself a head start by using one of our pre-selected short story ideas.