Definition of short story:
A short story is a form of short fictional narrative prose. Short stories tend to be more concise and to the point than longer works of fiction, such as novellas (in the modern sense of this term) and novels. Because of their brevity, successful short stories rely on literary devices such as character, plot, theme, language, and insight to a greater extent than long form fiction.
Short stories have their origins in the prose anecdote, a swiftly-sketched situation that comes rapidly to its point, with parallels in oral story-telling traditions. With the rise of the comparatively realistic novel, the short story evolved as a miniature, with some of its first perfectly independent examples in the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Anton Chekov.
History of the Short-Story
Just when, where, and by whom story-telling was begun no one can say. From the first use of speech, no doubt, our ancestors have told stories of war, love, mysteries, and the miraculous performances of lower animals and inanimate objects. The ultimate source of all stories lies in a thorough democracy, unhampered by the restrictions of a higher civilization. Many tales spring from a loathsome filth that is extremely obnoxious to our present day tastes. The remarkable and gratifying truth is, however, that the short-story, beginning in the crude and brutal stages of man’s development, has gradually unfolded to greater and more useful possibilities, until in our own time it is a most flexible and moral literary form.
The first historical evidence in the development of the story shows no conception of a short-story other than that it is not so long as other narratives. This judgment of the short-story obtained until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when a new version of its meaning was given, and an enlarged vision of its possibilities was experienced by a number of writers almost simultaneously. In the early centuries of story-telling there was only one purpose in mind–that of narrating for the joy of the telling and hearing. The story-tellers sacrificed unity and totality of effect as well as originality for an entertaining method of reciting their incidents.
The story of Ruth and the Prodigal Son are excellent short tales, but they do not fulfill the requirements of our modern short-story for the reason that they are not constructed for one single impression, but are in reality parts of possible longer stories. They are, as it were, parts of stories not unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Lear of the Steppes, and lack those complete and concise artistic effects found in the short-stories, Markheim and Mumu, by the same authors. Both Ruth and the Prodigal Son are exceptionally well told, possess a splendid moral tone, and are excellent prophecies of what the nineteenth century has developed for us in the art of short-story writing.
The Greeks did very little writing in prose until the era of their decadence, and showed little instinct to use the concise and unified form of the short-story. The conquering Romans followed closely in the paths of their predecessors and did little work in the shorter narratives. The myths of Greece and Rome were not bound by facts, and opened a wonderland where writers were free to roam. The epics were slow in movement, and presented a list of loosely organized stories arranged about some character like Ulysses or Aeneas.
During the mediaeval period story-tellers and stories appeared everywhere. The more ignorant of these story-tellers produced the fable, and the educated monks produced the simple, crude and disjointed tales. The Gesta Romanorum is a wonderful storehouse of these mediaeval stories. In the Decameron Boccaccio deals with traditional and contemporary materials. He is a born story-teller and presents many interesting and well-told narratives, but as Professor Baldwin has said, more than half are merely anecdotes, and the remaining stories are bare plots, ingeniously done in a kind of scenario form. Three approach our modern idea of the short-story, and two, the second story of the second day and the sixth story of the ninth day, actually attain to our standard. Boccaccio was not conscious of a standard in short-story telling, for he had none in the sense that Poe and Maupassant defined and practiced it. Chaucer in England told his stories in verse and added the charm of humor and well defined characters to the development of story-telling.
In the seventeenth century Cervantes gave the world its first great novel, Don Quixote. Cervantes was careless in his work and did not write short-stories, but tales that are fairly brief. Spain added to the story a high sense of chivalry and a richness of character that the Greek romance and the Italian novella did not possess. France followed this loose composition and lack of beauty in form. Scarron and Le Sage, the two French fiction writers of this period, contributed little or nothing to the advancement of story-telling. Cervantes’ The Liberal Lover is as near as this period came to producing a real short-story.
The story-telling of the seventeenth century was largely shaped by the popularity of the drama. In the eighteenth century the drama gave place to the essay, and it is to the sketch and essay that we must go to trace the evolution of the story during this period. Voltaire in France had a burning message in every essay, and he paid far greater attention to the development of the thought of his message than to the story he was telling. Addison and Steele in the Spectator developed some real characters of the fiction type and told some good stories, but even their best, like Theodosius and Constantia, fall far short of developing all the dramatic possibilities, and lack the focusing of interest found in the nineteenth century stories. Some of Lamb’s Essays of Elia, especially the Dream Children, introduce a delicate fancy and an essayist’s clearness of thought and statement into the story. At the close of this century German romanticism began to seep into English thought and prepare the way for things new in literary thought and treatment.
The nineteenth century opened with a decided preference for fiction. Washington Irving, reverting to the Spectator, produced his sketches and, following the trend of his time, looked forward to a new form and wrote The Spectre Bridegroom and Rip Van Winkle. It is only by a precise definition of short-story that Irving is robbed of the honor of being the founder of the modern short-story. He loved to meander and to fit his materials to his story scheme in a leisurely manner. He did not quite see what Hawthorne instinctively followed and Poe consciously defined and practiced, and he did not realize that terseness of statement and totality of impression was the chief qualities he needed to make him the father of a new literary form. Poe and Maupassant have reduced the form of the short-story to an exact science; Hawthorne and Harte have done successfully in the field of romanticism what the Germans, Tieck and Hoffman, did not do so well; Bjornson and Henry James have analyzed character psychologically in their short-stories; Kipling has used the short-story as a vehicle for the conveyance of specific knowledge; Stevenson has gathered most, if not all, of the literary possibilities adaptable to short-story use, and has incorporated them in his Markheim.
France with her literary newspapers and artistic tendencies, and the United States with magazines calling incessantly for good short-stories, and with every section of its conglomerate life clamoring to express itself, lead in the production and rank of short-stories. Maupassant and Stevenson and Hawthorne and Poe are the great names in the ranks of short-story writers. The list of present day writers is interminable, and high school students can best acquire a reasonable appreciation of the great work these writers are doing by reading regularly some of the better grade literary magazines.
For a comprehensive view of specimens representing the history and development of the short-story, students should have access to Brander Matthews’ The Short Story, Jessup and Canby’s The Book of the Short-Story, and Waite and Taylor’s Modern Masterpieces of Short Prose Fiction.
The Short Story
- as a form dates back to the oral tradition of the tale
- written tales emerge in poetic forms – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
- Boccaccio’s Decameron (1351-1353) often cited as the precursor of the short story form, as is the French translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1704)
- short story really begins to emerge as a form in the 19th century
- Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1824-1826) an early collection of folk stories that paved the way for the development of the genre of short stories
- early and mid 19th century saw the rise of the short story in America for example: Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales (1842) and Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1836) set a standard for one branch of short fiction – the gothic
- mid and late 19th century saw the blossoming of the short story in Britain – Hardy’s Wessex Tales (1888) first major success of a volume of short stories
- the proliferation of literary magazines and journals in the latter 25 years of the 19th century created a market demand for short fiction – stories between 3,000 – 15,000 words
- short story peaks as a form in the mid 20th century and while still respected, it has become less marketable than its prose cousin, the novel
- Poe (on Hawthorne): he finds “a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out” and “he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect … In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to one preestablished design.”
- Poe on plot: “A short story in which nothing at all happens is an absolute impossibility.”
- Thomas Hardy: “A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling … Therein lies the problem – to reconcile the average with that uncommonness which alone makes it natural that a tale of experience would dwell in the memory and induce repetition”
Modern short stories
Modern short stories emerged as their own genre in the early 19th century. Early examples of short story collections include the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (1824–1826), Nikolai Gogol‘s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831-1832), Edgar Allan Poe‘s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1836), and Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s Twice Told Tales (1842). In the later part of the 19th century, the growth of print magazines and journals created a strong market demand for short fiction between 3,000 and 15,000 words in length. Among the famous short stories to come out of this time period was “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov.
In the first half of the 20th century, a number of high-profile magazines, such as The Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, and The Saturday Evening Post, all published short stories in each issue. The demand for quality short stories was so great, and the money paid for them so high, that F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly turned to short story writing to pay off his numerous debts.
The demand for short stories by print magazines hit its peak in the middle of the 20th century, when in 1952 Life magazine published Ernest Hemingway’s long short story (or novella) The Old Man and the Sea. The issue containing this story sold 5,300,000 copies in only two days.
Since then, the number of commercial magazines that publish short stories has declined, even though several well-known magazines like The New Yorker continue to feature them. Literary magazines also provide a showcase for short stories. In addition, short stories have recently found a new life online, where they can be found in online magazines, in collections organized by author or theme, and on blogs.
One more incarnation of short stories began to be seen during the late 20th century in the film industry. A considerable movement began towards making short films of only one to forty minutes in length which were often based off of short stories or novellas themselves. Due to the advent of many forms of mobile electronics which supported it, the short films found a niche in the publics eye and were widely accepted as a modern form of the short story.
Elements and characteristics
Short stories tend to be less complex than novels. Usually, a short story will focus on only one incident, has a single plot, a single setting, a limited number of characters, and covers a short period of time.
In longer forms of fiction, stories tend to contain certain core elements of dramatic structure: exposition (the introduction of setting, situation and main characters); complication (the event of the story that introduces the conflict); rising action, crisis (the decisive moment for the protagonist and their commitment to a course of action); climax (the point of highest interest in terms of the conflict and the point of the story with the most action); resolution (the point of the story when the conflict is resolved); and moral.
Because of their short length, short stories may or may not follow this pattern. For example, modern short stories only occasionally have an exposition. More typical, though, is an abrupt beginning, with the story starting in the middle of the action. As with longer stories, plots of short stories also have a climax, crisis, or turning-point. However, the endings of many short stories are abrupt and open and may or may not have a moral or practical lesson.
Determining what exactly separates a short story from longer fictional formats is problematic. A classic definition of a short story is that it must be able to be read in one sitting (a point most notably made in Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” of 1846). Other definitions place the maximum word length at 7,500 words. In contemporary usage, the term short story most often refers to a work of fiction no longer than 20,000 words and no shorter than 1,000.
Short stories are most often a form of fiction writing, with the most widely published form of short stories being genre fiction such as science fiction, horror fiction, detective fiction, and so on. The short story has also come to embrace forms of non-fiction such as travel writing, prose poetry and postmodern variants of fiction and non-fiction such as ficto-criticism or new journalism.
The American Short Story: A Selective Chronology
- 1830-1865–Romantic Period
- 1865-1900–Realistic Period
- 1900-1910–Naturalistic Period
- 1910-1945–Period of Modernism
- 1945-1963–Postwar Period
- 1963-1980–“Confessional” Period
- 1980-?–Period of Postmodernism
- Of Critical Interest
Famous short stories
- “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce (online text)
- “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” by Robert Bloch
- “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
- “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
- “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
- “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin (online text)
- “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner (online text)
- “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol (online text — translated from Russian)
- “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (online text)
- “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway (online text)
- “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (online text)
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (online text)
- “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
- “The Dead” by James Joyce (online text)
- “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka (online text — translated from German)
- Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
- “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft
- “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville (online text)
- “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (online text)
- “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe (online text)
- “The Vampyre” by John Polidori (online text)
- “The Mortal Immortal” by Mary Shelley (online text)
- “The Spinoza of Market Street” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (online text)
- “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy (online text)
- “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain (online text)
- “The Red Room” by H.G. Wells
- “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
- “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber
List of short story authors
Lee K. Abbott (born 1947) Chinua Achebe (born 1930) Sherman Alexie (born 1966) Henry Allen (born 1982) Martin Amis (born 1949) Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Isaac Babel (1894-1940) Andrea Barrett (born 1964) John Barth (born 1930) Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) Charles Baxter (born 1947) Ann Beattie (born 1947) Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) Stefano Benni (born 1947) Ambrose Bierce (1842-c.1914) Michael Bishop (born 1945) Terry Bisson (born 1942) Robert Bloch (1917-1994) Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) Ray Bradbury (born 1920) Scott Bradfield (born 1955) Maeve Brennan (1917-1993) Fredric Brown (1906-1972) Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) Dino Buzzati (1906-1972) Morley Callaghan (1903-1990) Italo Calvino (1923-1985) Ramsey Campbell, (born 1946) Angela Carter (1940-1992) Raymond Carver (1938-1988) Michael Chabon (born 1963) John Cheever (1912-1982) Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) Ted Chiang (born 1967) Kate Chopin (1850-1904) John Collier (1901-1980) Frank Conroy (1936-2005) Robert Coover (born 1932) Stephen Crane (1871-1900) Catherine Crowe (1800-1876) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) Julio Cortazar (1914-1984) Roald Dahl (1916-1990) Avram Davidson (1923-1993) Peter Ho Davies (born 1966) Lydia Davis (born 1947) Rick DeMarinis (born 1934) Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) Paul Di Filippo (born 1954) Jeff Doyle (born 1955) Andre Dubus (1936-1999) Andy Duncan (born 1964) Dave Eggers (born 1970) Aaron Elliot (born 1969?) Harlan Ellison (born 1934) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) Rubem Fonseca (born 1925) John M. Ford (1957-2006) Richard Ford (born 1944) Thelma forshaw (1923-1995) Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912) Neil Gaiman (born 1960) Mavis Gallant (born 1922) Paul Gallico (1897-1976)