Short story

The short story, as a form in writing, is prose writing of less than 10,000 to 20,000 words (and usually more than 500 words) which may or may not have a narrative arc.

If a work has more than 20,000 words it is classified as a novella or a novellete. Still beyond that, into the 50,000 word range and above, a work will be classified as a full-fledged novel, though it should be noted that these words counts are very arbitrary and have more to do with what is saleable than with any sort of aesthetic decision. Science fiction or fantasy novels are usually over 80,000 words in length because that is what the market demands, while literary novels can dwindle down to as few as 40,000 words.

Stories were of interest right from the beginnings of humanity. Perhaps the first short story written in the English language, the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 755 AD gives us a good idea of what the core purpose of a short story might be.

Essentially, the short story was the evolution of a new form that seemed to rise spontaneously to meet a need. Because the Chronicle as we have it now was compiled by King Alfred the Great near the turn of the last millennium, we might assume that this piece long post-dates earlier English prose writing like Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. But the chronicle is actually a compilation of numerous older sources and we can safely say that the older entries especially are much nearer to their stated dates than the compilation as a whole.

The Chronicle is almost entirely composed of brief entries like the following:

A.D. 754. This year died Cuthred, king of the West-Saxons; and Sebright, his relative, succeeded to the kingdom, which he held one year; Cyneard succeeded Humferth in the see of Winchester; and Canterbury was this year on fire.

What happens to bring about the much longer and more fully detailed 755? We can only speculate. But it seems that several events must have converged. First the author had to have the extra information. Second he must have determined that it added something to his overall text. Chronicler's of the time would have had access to some amount of information and it seems likely that they would have exerted editorial control over what was and was not important. That is, there was probably more information available than what ended up in their respective chronicles. So why add this particular story? Frequently we can see that we only get entries of the "so-and-so-died" variety, and 755 could easily have been no different. It seems possible, likely even, that this was an aesthetic choice on the part of the chronicler. The story, when read as an aesthetic experience, reveals much more in the way of color and drama than in actual historical information. It is a tale of mistresses and sex, trickery and revenge, loyalty and betrayal. It is, plainly, artful, if only in a rudimentary way.

But the literary art of the time was poetry, heroic verse like we see in Beowulf or Finnsburgh. So why write in prose what you can write in poetic form?

That is the eternal conundrum of the short story, and its longer prose brethren.

Since the chronicle was printed, short stories have had spurts of popularity and long periods of absence. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his book Canterbury Tales wrote a collection of something close to short stories. And folk tradition from the beginning of time has contained something narrative that wasn't precisely poetry that we might imagine to be a short story (Little Red Riding Hood, anyone?) But the short story as we know it today didn't emerge as a popular form until the end of the eighteenth century.

And like so many things in writing, it was in part a creation of marketing.

Magazines are the venue of the modern short story. St. Nicholas was an early venue for the tales of Washington Irving for example. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and others like them created these brief tales because they fit nicely amongst the advertisements and the recipes. The desire to tell a short tale in prose may stem from its resemblance to the writing of history, the sense of authority and verisimiltude that prose uniquely confers. Due to its origins in historical writing, prose can command weight and import . It is a form that forces you into a one-on-one connection with the author in a private setting. It demands a kind of attention and commitment that oral poetry typically can't match. Certainly our old chronicler decided that what he had was good enough for a chronicle, but not worth the time for a poem. He may even have preferred his stodgy, literate prose form to the florid oral poetry of his day. But certainly into modern times, those aesthetic concerns were bolstered substantially by the fact that magazines didn't have room for whole novels. Nor did they have as much use for poetry which seems to waste all of that perfectly good paper with a lot of white space.

Thus the modern short story was born from a combination of aesthetics and economics.

Its concerns remain very much the same now as they were 1000 years ago. There is a kind of austerity to the prose short story. It's no accident that Edgar Allan Poe used this form to invent the detective story. There is no better form to mimic the cold, clear style of a police report or a newspaper account. And it's no wonder that newspaper man Ernest Hemingway picked up the form one hundred years after Poe.

Certainly the form has many practioners and many styles. These days especially, it traipses about the range of possible styles and genres, flirting with all sorts of poetic abstractions and excesses. Nonetheless, what was true 1000 years ago is still true today: the short story is a quick form set for quick action. Ephemerality dominates over longevity. There is no space, nor desire, for the weighty and lengthy examinations of the novel or epic poem. Only quick truths need apply: epiphanies, suprises, twist endings and suicides. Novels are divine because they, like gods, go on forever. But short stories are the perfect mirror of mortal man.

See: Short story authors

Further Reading and External Links


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