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The 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 and novels. Because of their short length, successful short stories also rely even more than longer fictional forms on such literary devices as character, plot, theme, language, and insight. Famous English-language short stories include "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway, "The Dead" by James Joyce, and "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner.

Contents

History of Short Stories

Short stories date back to the oral story-telling traditions which produced such notable tales as Homer's the Illiad and the Odyssey. Tales such as these were told in a rhyming, poetic format, with the rhymes acting as a mnemonic tool for people to remember the story. Short sections of these tales focused on individual narratives that could be told at one sitting. The overall arch of the story would only emerge through the telling of multiple sections of the tale.

Two ancient forms of short stories which did not exist within a larger narrative format are the fable and the anecdote. 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, were 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 transition 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 existing within a larger narrative story.

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's Fairy Tales (1824-1826), Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales (1842), Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1836), and Guy de Maupassant's La Maison Tellier (1881). 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 "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens.

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 of Short Stories

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: 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 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.

Of course, as with any art form, the exact characteristics of a short story will vary by author.

Short Story Word Lengths

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. Other definitions place the maximum word length (or number of words in the story) 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 (at one extreme) and no shorter than 1,000.

Stories shorter than 1,000 words fall into the flash fiction genre. Fiction surpassing the maximum word length parameters of the short story falls into the areas of novelettes, novellas, or novels.

Genres

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.

See also

Examples of Classic Short Stories

Other Short Story Resources

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