From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- In his Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines "novel" as "a padded short story." Chekhov described the novel as a "beefed-up 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.
Short stories have their origins in oral story-telling traditions and the prose anecdote, a swiftly-sketched situation that comes rapidly to its point. 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 Chekhov.
Short stories date back to the oral story-telling traditions which originally produced epics such as the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. Oral narratives were often told in the form of rhyming or rhythmic poetry, often including recurring sections or, in the case of Homer, Homeric epithets. Such stylistic effects often acted as mnemonic means for easier recall, rendition and adaptation of the story. Short sections of such poems might focus on individual narratives that could be told at one sitting. The overall arc of the story would only emerge through the telling of multiple sections of the tale.
Fables, which tend to be folk tales with an explicitly expressed moral, were said by the Greek historian Herodotus to have been invented by a Greek slave named Aesop in the 6th century BCE (although other times and nationalities are also given for Aesop). These ancient fables are known today as Aesop's Fables.
The other ancient form of short story, anecdotes, was popular during the years of the Roman Empire. Anecdotes functioned as a sort of parable, a brief realistic narration that embodies a point. Many of the surviving Roman anecdotes were later collected in the Gesta Romanorum in the 13th or 14th century. Anecdotes remained popular in Europe well into the 18th century, when the fictional anecdotal letters of Sir Roger de Coverley were published.
In Europe, the oral story-telling tradition began to develop into written stories in the early 14th century, most notably with Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Both of these books are composed of individual short stories (which range from farce or humorous anecdotes to well-crafted literary fictions) set within a larger narrative story (a frame story), although the frame tale device was not adopted by all writers. At the end of the 16th century, some of the most popular short stories in Europe were the darkly tragic "novella" of Matteo Bandello (especially in their French translation). During the Renaissance, the term novella was used when referring to short stories.
The medieval verse fabliau and lai may be seen as French ancestors of the modern short story. The nouvelle first makes its appearance in the 15th century, notably in the successful Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, a collection of mainly bawdy stories modelled on Boccaccio's Decameron. Similar collections followed over the next 100 years, including the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre.
The mid 17th century in France saw the development of a refined short novel, the "nouvelle", by such authors as Madame de Lafayette. In the 1690s, traditional fairy tales began to be published (one of the most famous collections was by Charles Perrault). The appearance of Antoine Galland's first modern translation of the Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) (from 1704; another translation appeared in 1710–12) would have an enormous influence on the 18th century European short stories of Voltaire, Diderot and others.
Modern short stories
Modern short stories emerged as their own genre in the early 19th century. Early examples of short stories include the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (1824–1826) or Nikolai Gogol's Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831-1832). Charles Brockden Brown's "Somnambulism" (1805), Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842) are first examples in the USA.
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.
At the same time first literary theories about the short story appeared. The first widely known theory is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846). In 1901 Brander Matthews, first US-American professor of dramatic literature published his "The Philosophy of the Short-Story."
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.
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. Some do not follow patterns at all. 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 one should be able to be read it in one sitting, a point most notably made in Edgar Allan Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (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.