Despite being a massively popular storytelling form, short stories are exceptionally difficult to write well. When you have so few words at your disposal, every single word matters that much more.
The conundrum for many writers is knowing what to tell. It's not just about having a great idea—it's about conveying that story as succinctly as possible with maximum effect.
In other words, the best short stories strike the perfect balance between subtlety, power, and omission.
Here are my picks for the best short stories of all time and why they're so great and still worth reading today.
Note: I've chosen the best short stories from across a range of genres, but I've omitted shorts that are predominantly science fiction. Since there are so many great sci-fi short stories, they deserve their own article.
Perhaps the shortest of short stories on this list, "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid paints a sad picture of how a mother talks to her daughter.
In an attempt to teach her how to grow up nicely, we see that she's actually planting the seeds for her daughter's future failures.
"Girl" was originally published in the June 26, 1978 issue of The New Yorker and was later made more widely available in the 1983 short story collection called At the Bottom of the River.
19. The Most Dangerous Game
After a man falls off a yacht, he swims to a nearby island in hope of rescue. Unfortunately, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire—his host is a big-game hunter with a taste for exotic pleasures.
Written by Richard Connell in 1924, "The Most Dangerous Game" is an iconic short story that went on to inspire several films, and it entered the public domain in 2020.
18. Brokeback Mountain
Two poor country boys fall in love with each other while working the hills and mountains in Wyoming one summer. Unfortunately, their love will always be marred by difficulty.
Annie Proulx's short story shouldn't be overlooked or overshadowed just because the film adaptation was so fantastic. Her writing is melancholic, resonant, and deeply lyrical.
"Brokeback Mountain" can be read in Annie Proulx's short story collection titled Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
"Cathedral" is a story about catharsis. It's also about a blind man, a man returning home, and the connections we make throughout life.
Over the course of his career, author and poet Raymond Carver etched a name for himself amongst the upper echelon of short story authors, and many claim this as his defining work.
"Cathedral" is the title short story that's available in Raymond Carver's short story collection that also happens to be titled Cathedral.
In "Araby" by James Joyce, a young boy finds himself head-over-heels in love with his best friend's sister. Though impoverished, he resolves to get her a piece of beautiful jewelry to demonstrate his affection.
This beautiful short story about young love can be found in James Joyce's collection of short stories titled Dubliners.
15. The Nightingale and the Rose
Oscar Wilde is one of the most iconic authors of all time, and one of his most notable stories is "The Nightingale and the Rose."
In "The Nightingale and the Rose," we're treated to the story of a young boy who wants to win the heart of his crush and how supernatural phenomena come to his aid to help him.
This children's short story demonstrates all of Oscar Wilde's wry wit, cynicism, and disdain for snobbishness. It can be found as part of his story collection titled Happy Prince and Other Stories.
14. A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings
"A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" is a 1968 short story by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez.
On a wild, windy, and stormy night, our eponymous character of the old man arrives in a small Colombian family's backyard. In his signature style, Gabriel García Márquez's writing—infused with magical realism—sweeps us off of our feet.
"A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" is available as part of Leaf Storm and Other Stories, Márquez's short story collection.
13. In the Penal Colony
Franz Kafka is one of the most prominent names in all of literature, despite the fact he wasn't especially prolific.
One of his best short stories, titled "In the Penal Colony," was published in 1919. In it, he documents the experiences of a traveler in an island penal colony, who witnesses a torturous execution device that carves sentences into the skin of condemend prisoners.
"In the Penal Colony" is available as part of The Great Short Works of Franz Kafka, which consists of 41 of Kafka's best stories.
12. The Snows of Kilimanjaro
"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" follows a writer named Harry and his wife named Helen, who are both stuck on the mountain of Kilimanjaro. As they bicker, Harry is slowly dying of gangrene.
Ernest Hemingway wrote this tale in his same detached, iceberg writing style. In doing so, he leaves plenty for us to ponder afterwards.
"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" is the best way to ease yourself into Ernest Hemingway's writing, and this short story is available to read in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories.
11. Sonny's Blues
African-American writing sensation James Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in 1957, an iconic short story that details the difficulties of growing up in Harlem, New York.
This deeply moving tale—about a school teacher whose drug-addicted brother experiences arrest and recovery—is perhaps the most personal story he'd ever written.
"Sonny's Blues" is available to read in James Baldwin's 1965 short story collection titled Going to Meet the Man.
10. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"—originally titled "Death and the Maiden"—is one of the most popular short stories of the last century, written by Joyce Carol Oates.
The story centers on a young girl named Connie, who's frequently scolded by her overbearing mother. On the other hand, her sister is depicted as a golden child, and it's clear that something bad is going to happen at any moment...
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was inspired by three murders committed by Charles Schmid, as well as a song by Bob Dylan (to whom she dedicated the short story).
Today, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is available to read as part of a casebook titled 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?': Joyce Carol Oates.
9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
You've probably heard of Sleepy Hollow, primarily through movies and TV shows. But did you know it was first a short story by American author Washington Irving, published in 1820?
In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," a man moves to a small, countryside town to become the new school teacher there. Unfortunately for him, supernatural horror soon abounds.
Washington Irving crafted a classic of Gothic horror fiction with this tale, and it endures as one of the best horror short stories of all time.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is available to read as part of The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a classic collection of Washington Irving's best and most famous stories.
8. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Few stories—whether short stories or not—start as intensely as Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is about a man who has his hands bound behind his back while standing at the sharp-drop edge of a bridge. Down below, the watery depths stare back at him.
Written in 1890 and described as one of the most frequently anthologized stories in American literature, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the Civil War veteran's definitive short story.
Today, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is available to read in casebook format in An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.
7. The Gift of the Magi
Christmas shopping can be a stressful affair. This short tale follows a young married couple, both of whom have no money but still want to get each other nice gifts for Christmas. I won't spoil the ending.
Written by O. Henry in 1905, "The Gift of the Magi" is a must-read for short story enthusiasts and short story newbies alike.
"The Gift of the Magi" is available to read as part of The Four Million, a classic collection of O. Henry's most critically acclaimed stories.
6. The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe is universally recognized as the king of Gothic horror, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" played a big role in his renown.
This unsettling tale centers on a murderer as he confesses to his crime. But as he does so, he finds himself supernaturally haunted by the sound of his victim's thumping heart.
Though Poe wrote many fantastic short stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart"—first published in 1843—is arguably his crowning achievement.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is available to read in The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories, which also includes six of Edgar Allan Poe's other best stories.
5. A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Looking for a short story that isn't just horrific but truly disturbing? Look no further than "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," written by Flannery O'Connor and first published in 1953.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" tells the story of a family of six who are on their way from Georgia to Florida. Along the way, they meet a man called "the Misfit"—and things take a dark turn.
Flannery O'Connor wrote "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" while she was suffering from lupus—the disease that would eventually kill her—and it's written in a style that'll leave chills all over your body.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is available as part of A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, which is now considered to be one of the greatest American short story collections of all time.
4. The Yellow Wallpaper
One of the defining texts of feminist literature, "The Yellow Wallpaper" isn't just a short story—it's an experience that has undoubtedly made many readers question their own reality.
The story follows a young woman who's confined to a room in order to quell her hysteria. However, as she increasingly loses her grip on reality, she grows obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room.
Written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and first published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was massively ahead of its time and still thrilling to this day.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is available to read in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings, which includes seven other short stories by Gilman that each touch on a woman's place in society.
John Cheever is an American short story writer who's wholly unique and unlike anyone else. Dubbed the "Chekhov of the suburbs," Cheever wrote personal stories with a touch of detachment that makes you quiver to read them.
His short story "Reunion" isn't even three pages long, yet it communicates the absolute tragedy that exists in one boy's final meeting with his father. It's a stark insight into boyhood and the uncertainty of the future.
"Reunion" is available to read in The Stories of John Cheever, a collection of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
2. The Lady With the Dog
While the aforementioned John Cheever might've been "Chekhov of the suburbs," no one actually writes like Anton Chekhov himself—and "The Lady With the Dog" is his best short story.
The story itself is relatively simple. It follows two individuals, both unhappily married, who begin an affair with each other when they meet while holidaying alone in Yalta.
When an author like Vladimir Nabokov claims that "The Lady With the Dog" is the best story ever written, you know it's special.
First published in 1899, "The Lady With the Dog" is now available to read in Anton Chekhov's classic short story collection titled The Lady With the Dog and Other Stories.
1. The Lottery
Written by Shirley Jackson in 1948, so many people around the world agree on "The Lottery" as the best short story ever written.
"The Lottery" is about an annual tradition that takes place in a fictional American community: the eponymous lottery.
This story does everything a short story should: create a palpable atmosphere; introduce us to believable characters; wrap us up in vivid descriptions without getting stuck in excessive details.
"The Lottery" paints a strange setting and way of life that's totally unfamiliar, and yet we can see exactly what the author is doing: she's holding up a mirror to our own supposedly "civilized" society.
The secret behind this story's long-lasting appeal is just how scary it is without explicitly being horror. Everything presented to us by Shirley Jackson is simultaneously strange yet familiar, alien yet recognizable, and uncomfortably close to home.
Without spoiling anything, it'll make you reconsider yourself, your friends, and your whole society—all in only seven pages. For that reason, it's my pick as the best short story ever written.
First published in 1948 in The New Yorker, "The Lottery" is now available in the short story collection titled The Lottery and Other Stories.