Andrew Zhu

Twenty Great Short Stories



Short stories are a joy to read, crafted with essential brevity yet provoking sharp reactions that linger in the mind. All of us probably have a favorite short story or two that we think back on from time to time or heartily recommend to acquaintances or friends in want of a reading suggestion.

I have been reading more – even created a Goodreads account to log my read books – and I thought that it would be a enjoyable exercise to create a list of twenty of my own personal favorites. I do have a few requirements which I will present below:


What defines a short story? It certainly isn’t a well formulated definition like that of a sonnet or a haiku. Does one go by ideas presented, in that the work requires a beginning, middle, and end? If so, would the apocryphal Hemingway piece For Sale: baby shoes, never worn. fit the requirement? Or is this six-word story more an example of an even short writing form – that of flash fiction (a.k.a. short short stories)? 

The relevant Wikipedia page provides a few useful perspectives from several famed authors. Edgar Allan Poe posited that a short story should have a maximal length limited by one’s ability to read the entire work in one sitting. H.G. Wells was of the opinion that a short story should take between “fifteen to fifty minutes to read aloud.” Contrary to many, Anton Chekov took the view that a short story need not and should not have a structured beginning or an end, but rather should present a “slice of life” to the reader.

Perhaps the most objective way to define a short story is simply by word count, typically given as from 1,000 to 4,000 or more (up to even 15,000 words by some definitions). Therefore, the purposes of this post, I will set a the limit to 15,000 words – an amount I feel can be reasonably read over by most in one sitting.

Other than the word count range requirement, I will further impose an additional restriction of one story, maximum, per author. 


Twenty Great Short Stories

These short stories are presented by order of first publication, not by any favoritism on my part (other than selecting them in the first place).

Links to full texts are provided if the work is in the public domain or if the author listed permission on the linked site.


“The Nose” (1836) | Nikolai Gogoi

A St. Petersburg official wakes up to find that his Nose has wandered off.

Word Count: 10,137 | Original Language – Russian | [Full Text]

“The Black Cat” (1843) | Edgar Allan Poe

An unreliable narrator condemned for murder tells the story of his favorite pet – a black cat.

Word Count: 3,921 | [Full Text]

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) | Ambrose Bierce

During the American Civil War, a Southern civilian is led to Owl Creek bridge to be hanged.

Word Count: 3,804 | [Full Text]

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) | Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A post-partum wife finds herself confined to a small nursery room to recover from a temporary nervous depression.

Word Count: 6,300 | [Full Text]

“The Last Leaf” (1905) | O. Henry

Ailing from pneumonia, a young woman feels her health ebbing as she notices leaves falling from the tree outside her window.

Word Count: 2,500 | [Full Text]


“To Build a Fire” (1908) | Jack London

A man and his husky venture out in defiance of the harsh coldness of Yukon Territory.

Word Count: 7,125 | [Full Text]

“In the Penal Colony” (1919) | Franz Kafka

A traveler visits a penal colony in time to see the execution of a condemned prisoner.

Word Count: 11,730 | Original Language – German | [Full Text]

“The Killers” (1927) | Ernest Hemingway

Two hitmen enter a Chicagoan restaurant in search for their target.

Word Count: 2,951

“A Rose for Emily” (1930) | William Faulkner

The story of a Southern belle and her relationships with an overbearing father and a Northern lover.

Word Count: 3,720

“The Lottery” (1948) | Shirley Jackson

Residents of a small town gather as an annual tradition is observed – the selection of the winner of “The Lottery.” 

Word Count: 3,775


“Man from the South” (1948) | Roald Dahl

At a vacation resort, a strange man asks the narrator if he would like to make a bet.

Word Count: 4,625

“The Veldt” (1950) | Ray Bradbury

A mother and father are concerned about their children’s obsession with a virtual reality room of a fully-automated home.

Word Count: 4,604

“The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) | Arthur C. Clarke

Tibetan lamas enlist the help of two computer operators to list out all nine billion names of God.

Word Count: 2,536

“- All You Zombies – ” (1958) | Robert A. Heinlein

A story showcasing the inherent cause-and-effect paradox of time travel.

Word Count: 4,750

“Flowers for Algernon (1959) | Daniel Keyes

Charlie, a man of low I.Q., is selected to undergo an experimental surgical technique to augment his intelligence.

Word Count: 12,022


“2 B R 0 2 B” (1962) | Harlan Ellison

The disease of aging has been cured as death has been scientifically eliminated. 

Word Count: 4,485

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) | Ursula K. Le Guin

“Some inhabitants of a peaceful kingdom cannot tolerate the act of cruelty that underlies its happiness.”

Word Count: 2,810

“Survivor Type” (1982) | Stephen King

“Sooner or later the question comes up in every medical student’s career… How badly does the patient want to survive?” 

Word Count: 7,800

“Exhalation” (2008) | Ted Chiang

An alien scientist makes a startling discovery with enormous ramifications.

Word Count: 6,552 | [Full Text]

“The Paper Menagerie” (2011)  | Ken Liu

Paper in Hand, Love in Heart: an immigrant Chinese mother attempts to connect with her American-born son through origami.

Word Count: 4,900 | [Full Text]



You might notice that these short stories gravitate toward specific genres; the exclusion of certain writers and genres is perhaps due to unfamiliarity rather than disinterest.

Short fiction may be short to read but it certainly stays with you for a long time – if you haven’t yet checked out any of these works, I highly recommend that you do so!