Short stories are one of the oldest types of literature. They evolved out of traditional legends, fairy tales, fables, anecdotes, and more. Just because the stories are short doesn’t mean they can’t be packed full of emotion and meaning. The short story as it’s known today developed around the 19th century.
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what makes a short story a short story and what makes it a novella or short novel. Numerous authors have put forward suggestions as to how a short story should be defined. Some believe it should be of a certain length, contain certain elements, conform to a strict form, etc.
Explore Short Story
Definition of Short Story
A short story has all the elements of a novel but in a condensed form and with fewer details. These stories can be just as impactful and moving as a 1,000-page novel, but they can be read in one sitting. Short stories still follow the traditional plot structure most novels make use of. That is, Freytag’s pyramid with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (sometimes with denouement). But, a short story doesn’t have to follow this pattern.
Examples of Short Stories
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” is a popular short story published in 1948 in The New Yorker. It follows a small town in the United States that takes place in an event known as “the lottery.” It involves a member of the community being picked at random and stoned to death by all the other members, including their own family. Here is a quote:
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.
In these lines, the chosen citizen, Tessie, is about to be murdered by her friends and family members. This story is engaging, confusing, and provocative. It has inspired debate since it was published and has been dramatized several times.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of the most famous and commonly read short stories today. It can be found on school syllabuses around the world. The story was first published in 1892 in The New England Magazine. It uses a first-person narrator and journal entries to describe a woman whose husband has confined her to the upstairs nursery. She’s forbidden to write or work as a form of treatment for her nervous tendencies and depression. She has what Gilman describes as “a hysterical tendency,” an incredibly common diagnosis for women during that time and one that often resulted in treatments such as those described in this story. Here are a few lines from this disturbing story:
I really have discovered something at last. Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.
In these lines, the narrator, the unnamed woman, is revealing how troubled she’s truly become. The wallpaper is slowly driving her insane, and she imagines that there’s a woman, not unlike her, trapped behind it, shaking it, trying to get out.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is Poe’s best-known short story. It was published in 1843 and follows another unnamed narrator. This person tries to convince the listener (the reader) of their sanity as they describe how and why they murdered someone. The victim, an old man with a bad eye, was dismembered and put under the floorboards. But, the killer continually hears the man’s heart beating, a very evocative symbol of the killer’s guilt. Here are a few lines from the story:
And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? –now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
The killer’s madness is quite clear, but he continues to try to convince the reader that he had a very good reason for killing the man and that everyone should regard him as sane.
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Write Short Stories?
Writers write short stories in order to tell a condensed version of what might normally be a novel. They are used to convey narratives in a quick fashion. Their shorter form means that each element, from exposition to dialogue, is all the more important. Readers will easily pick up on connections, and changes characters go through.
Short Story or Novella
The difference between these two forms of fiction comes down to length. Short stories are usually around 1,000-4,000 words, while novellas can be considerably longer. They are usually around 30,000 to 60,000 words and feel more like books. They are usually read in more than one sitting.
Short stories are important because they allow writers to tell a story quickly and effectively without worrying about creating an entire world and tertiary, and sometimes even secondary, characters.
Some examples of short stories are “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.
Short stories have exposition (although usually limited), a rising action, climax, falling action (also sometimes quite limited), and resolution. Although, they do not have to follow this exact form, nor do the elements need to take up equal space in the story.
Generally, writers agree short stories should be between 1,000 and 4,000 words. But, there are some that are much longer, up to 15,000 words. There has always been debate in regard to the appropriate length.
Related Literary Terms
- Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story
- Denouement: at the end of a story, where the plotlines are tied up and resolved.
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Watch: Summary and Analysis of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
- Listen: Stephen King on the Craft of Short Story Writing
- Listen: Understanding the Short Story