What is a Short Story in Literature

What is a Short Story in Literature?

We can all recognize a short story when we see one. But there are problems when it comes to defining a short story. There are many different kinds of short stories in literature which no single definition would cover all. So, at best, we can only try to define a short story in the most general terms.

A short story is a piece of prose fiction complete in itself and of moderate length. This definition does not include all stories written in verse. Moreover, a short story is different from a tale or fable because it is not just a story but a complex and developed literary form, that can be traced only to the early nineteenth century. 


A tale is primarily an oral form of story-telling and has a long history. A short story, on the other hand, is a developed literary form that can be traced only to the nineteenth century.

 A fable is a short tale which usually conveys a moral. The characters in a fable are usually animals talking like human beings. 

Short stories are also different from parables. A parable is a story with a  moral. The contemporary short story also has a meaning, a point to be made, but it is not a parable because that meaning in itself is not important.

 A short story is also different from an anecdote. An anecdote relates an interesting happening or a series of happenings or events. A short story may also present these events. But the difference lies in the fact that in a short story these happenings or events are not important in themselves but are a manifestation of the true nature and significance of a character or situation.

It is difficult to establish the average length of a short story. Edgar Allan Poe(1809-1849), an American short story writer, says that it requires 'from half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal'. That is it should generally be possible to complete a short story in one sitting.

The Rise of the Short Story in Literature

Interest in stories is as old as human history. Even before the art of writing was known, early human beings must have narrated tales of the day's hunting or stories of gods and demons to one another. These probably transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next. The oldest recorded example is probably the Egyptian tale of The Two Brothers dating from 3200B.C. The Jataka( a collection of stories of Buddha's earlier incarnations) and Panchatantra lates(Sanskrit tales that are designed to impart worldly wisdom and are about animals) are India's contribution to the world of stories and have continues to interest people through the ages. These along with the fables of Aesop(Greek fables with animals as characters and having a moral), stories in the Bible and the tales from the Arabian Nights are all precursors or forerunners of the short story.

The short story as a literary form began to be written in the early nineteenth century. However, it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the term 'short story' was used. The rise of the short story can be attributed to:

➤ the rise of the reading public; more and more people were beginning to read fiction in the nineteenth century;

➤ the increase in the number of periodicals which could publish fiction;

➤ widespread literacy; education was now more widely accessible;

➤ hurry and pace of modern life.

The short story developed in the hands of writers many of whom were also novelists. But the techniques of the novelist and the short story writer are to some extent similar as well as different.

What is a Short Story About?

A short story has an unlimited range of possible themes just like any other literary genre. A short story may be about a particular scene, a series of connected incidents, a moral issue, an aspect of life, a phase of character or an interesting experience. In sum, a short story can be about anything.

The modern short story may not even have a story, but it is certainly fictional. A short story illuminates some aspects of life or characters. A well-written short story must convey the impression of completeness. In some stories, there is no clear-cut ending or resolution of the crisis, yet the effect is one of organic unity.  What is organic unity? It is not just a unity of a beginning, a middle and an end. The unity lies in the way the way the writer has given shape to a mass of details. 

A writer is faced with a range of possible ways in which to write the story. S/he must select the relevant details as it is not possible to narrate everything. The writer then works these selected details into a complete organic whole. What do mean by 'organic whole'? For example, if we cut an arm off a body, the body is no longer an organic whole but is mutilated. Just as it is not possible to remove a single limb without mutilating the body, similarly in a well-constructed short story, it should not be possible to remove a single detail.

What is it Matters in a Short Story?

Is it the writer's preoccupation with the form?Or does the greatness of a story depend on the extent to which it has depicted the range of human experience? Is a short story great because of the writer's technique? Or does a  short story have literary merit because of its originality of theme and style? Or is it because a certain kind of story is in fashion? Or does a story matter because it has the power to move us? A short story defies exact definition. However,  an effective short story must arouse and hold the reader's interest and must convey a sense of completeness, in a style that suits the content. All these elements then contribute to the final effect that the story may have.

Short Story 'Misery' by Anton Chekhov

Next Post »