Chapter Two Short Stories

We have given a lot of space to short stories in Step by Step. There are several reasons for this:

  • We agree with Phillip Pullman when he says that “…after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
  • Stories are a good basis for discussions, writing and creativity.
  • Stories are an excellent medium for learning languages.
  • The written exam almost always has a question or two which invite pupils to use literary texts they have read.

The following very short short stories (maximum 60 words) have proved to be a useful introduction. It is easy for pupils to grasp the concepts of plot and setting, and although they are short, they illustrate the basic elements of a short story.

I let them work in pairs or small groups and try to come up with a good ending within the word limits. The original endings were “Your wife, she said, shooting him” and “Will you marry me? Yes.” The last time I used this exercise, several groups came very close to these endings, while others were acceptable, but to varying degrees.

The first story also illustrates how an author can hint at things without stating them specifically. The wine in the bedroom suggests intimacy. Mention of the wife introduces a complication. The reference to the gun is potentially ambiguous until the woman asks if he is going to shoot his wife himself. The man’s tone towards the woman is rather condescending, adding to the irony of the ending, when it comes.

It is of course possible to give pupils the complete stories at the outset, and spend more time on a discussion of the various aspects of the stories, rather than asking them to make up endings.

Usually a short story (=novelle) focuses on one incident; has a single plot, a single setting, a small number of characters and takes place in a short period of time.

The following very short stories have a maximum of sixty words. The endings are missing. See if you can think of a good ending.

She lay on the bed as he came in with more wine.

“Is this for your wife? she asked, waving the gun she had found in the drawer.

“Yes,” he smiled.

“Are you going to shoot her yourself?

“Don’t be silly, darling, I’ll hire a professional.”

“Why not me?”

“Who’d hire a woman hitman?”

(6 words)

“Remember, the maximum is sixty,” she said.

“Miles per hour?” he asked, gripping the steering wheel harder.

“No, words. We cannot use more than sixty words.”

“But there are so many things I want to tell you. And things I want to ask you.”

“Sixteen left.”

“Sixteen?” he asked, shocked.

“Now we have exactly five.”

(5 words)

For all short stories

Spend time exploring other possible themes that the story might touch on, in addition to what stands out as the main one. This is useful because:

  • It underlines the fact that literature is many-faceted.
  • It enriches the reading experience.
  • It helps pupils become better (more sensitive) readers.
  • It may make it easier for pupils to use the stories in a written examination question.

Look at the structure of the short story and discuss setting, time, characters, plot, etc. This will help pupils to:

  • understand the short story genre
  • master some of the terminology
  • remember the story itself

Testing and facilitating understanding of the content

  1. Pick some central words in the story (6–10) and ask pupils to:
    • explain the meaning of the word in English
    • say why it was in the story

    This can be done first in pairs or small groups, then together.

    When pupils are used to doing this, they can pick the words themselves and ask each other for the explanation and context.

  2. True/false/no information statements

    Make some sentences about the story. Some should be true, some false, and in some cases there should be insufficient information in the story to decide.

    Once pupils have become familiar with this exercise, they are generally quite good at making these statements themselves. They can then read them to each other in pairs, groups and/or the whole class.

  3. Put the statements in the correct order.

    Make a small number of correct statements about the story, but in a jumbled order. Ask pupils to find the correct order.

    Pupils can also be asked to make questions to which the statements are answers.

  4. Complete the statements by putting in the missing words.
  5. Pupils can make questions about the story.
  6. All short stories lend themselves to creative writing in some shape or form:
    • letter
    • diary
    • newspaper report
    • sequel
    • prequel
    • dialogue
    • rewrite (parts) from a different perspective

Creative activities do not necessarily have to be written. Pupils can share ideas orally, either before or instead of writing.

The Open Window

This is an amusing story with a serious undertone. Vera is a girl with a lively imagination, who seems to enjoy making up dramatic stories. Unfortunately, Framton Nuttel, the visitor who is treated to one of her more tragic and ghostly tales, is also of a nervous disposition…

There is a very good video of the story here.

Ex Poser

Possible themes: honesty, friendship, love, first impressions, adolescence, jealousy, envy.

Ask pupils if they can suggest themes, then ask if they can relate to any of the ones you give.

You could even put in one or two that are not relevant, just for the sake of discussion.

Some points to think about:

  • Did Sandra and Ben avoid the other pupils, or were they avoided because they were rich?
  • Were they snobs or just shy?
  • Why did Sandra agree to take the lie detector test?
  • How is it possible that David had not realised that Sandra liked him so much?
  • How would Sandra or Ben have described the lie detector test?

Creative Writing

Sandra’s Diary

A School Newspaper Report: “Lie Detector Plan Backfires”, by Ben


The mother of a young Sri Lankan woman has found a “suitable” husband for her daughter. He is older, wealthy and lives in Australia. Her daughter, however, already has a young man (Vijay) whom she likes a lot. Vijay, on the other hand, does not seem to take the relationship quite so seriously. At least he refuses to say anything about his girlfriend’s suitor.

Themes: love, obedience, parenting, arranged/forced marriage, marriage of convenience, happiness, migration

For discussion

  • How would you describe the three main characters (mother, daughter, Vijay)?
  • How would you describe the relationships between them?
  • How much pressure does the mother put on her daughter?
  • What do you think the young woman will do, and why?
  • Why does Vijay behave as he does?
  • What could or should Vijay have done?

The Breadwinner

This is a sad story about a fourteen-year-old boy and his mother whose lives are blighted by the violent, selfish father. There is a happy ending of sorts, which solves the problem this week. But what will happen next week?

Possible topics for discussion: child labour, physical punishment, loyalty, white lies, bravery, bullying, greed

A Friend in Need

The relationship between two teenage girls becomes complicated when they meet a young man at a party. The problem is that only one of the girls knows about the complication – mainly because she is the one that caused it.

Themes: friendship, jealousy, honesty, status

Chain Reaction

In this very short story a cruise ship captain decides to find out what is at the other end of a chain his propeller is entangled in, with potentially far-reaching if not disastrous results.

The moral of this story seems to be “let sleeping dogs lie”, or perhaps “leave well enough alone”.

In any case it is a timely reminder that we should not interfere in nature if we do not know the consequences of our actions.

The Test

Marian is a young African American woman who is taking her driving test for the second time. Her examiner at first appears to be friendly and jovial, but as the test progresses, his behaviour towards Marian goes from condescending to downright insulting. In the end Marian loses her temper, and the examiner fails her.

This story touches on a number of themes: racism, sexism, prejudice, intolerance, abuse of authority, inter alia.

It also raises the question of the extent to which these problems still exist, and where/how?

The Colours of Love

Warona is a young single mother with a small daughter. The child’s father was unreliable, and Warona is struggling with her situation. One day she meets Silas, who makes a deep impression on her. After a while they leave the village together.

Is this a case of opposites attracting each other, or has Warona finally met Mr Right? Will their relationship last?

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