A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood. The short story is one of the oldest types of literature and has existed in the form of legends, mythic tales, folk tales, fairy tales, fables and anecdotes in various ancient communities across the world. The modern short story developed in the early 19th century.
The short story is a crafted form in its own right. Short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components as in a novel, but typically to a lesser degree. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel or novella/short novel, authors generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.
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 read it in one sitting, a point most notably made in Edgar Allan Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846). According to William Faulkner, a short story is character driven and a writer's job is to "...trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
Some authors have argued that a short story must have a strict form. Somerset Maugham thought that the short story "must have a definite design, which includes a point of departure, a climax and a point of test; in other words, it must have a plot". This view is however opposed by Anton Chekov who thought that a story should have neither a beginning nor an end. It should just be a "slice of life", presented suggestively.
Short story writers may define their works as part of the artistic and personal expression of the form. They may also attempt to resist categorization by genre and fixed formation.
Short stories have deep roots and the power of short fiction has been recognized in modern society for hundreds of years.
As William Boyd, the award-winning British author and short story writer has said:
[short stories] seem to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.
Longer stories that cannot be called novels are sometimes considered "novellas" or novelettes and, like short stories, may be collected into the more marketable form of "collections", often containing previously unpublished stories. Sometimes, authors who do not have the time or money to write a novella or novel decide to write short stories instead, working out a deal with a popular website or magazine to publish them for profit.
In terms of length, word count is typically anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 for short stories, however some have 15,000 words and are still classed as short stories. Stories of fewer than 1,000 words are sometimes referred to as "short short stories", or "flash fiction".
Short stories have no set length. In terms of word count, there is no official demarcation between an anecdote, a short story, and a novel. Rather, the form's parameters are given by the rhetorical and practical context in which a given story is produced and considered so that what constitutes a short story may differ between genres, countries, eras, and commentators. Like the novel, the short story's predominant shape reflects the demands of the available markets for publication, and the evolution of the form seems closely tied to the evolution of the publishing industry and the submission guidelines of its constituent houses.
As a point of reference for the genre writer, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define short story length in the Nebula Awards for science fiction submission guidelines as having a word count of fewer than 7,500 words.
The precursors of short story were legends, mythic tales, folk tales, fairy tales, fables and anecdotes which were present in various ancient communities across the world. These short pieces existed mostly in oral form and they were transmitted from one generation to another in oral form. A large number of such tales are found in ancient literature, from the Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The 1001 Arabian Nights, compiled for the first time probably in the eighth century, is also a storehouse of Middle Eastern folk tales and fairy tales. Emerging in the 17th century from oral storytelling traditions and above-mentioned written works of the ancient times (which themselves are based on oral traditions), the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterization.
With the rise of the realistic novel, the short story evolved in a parallel tradition, with some of its first distinctive examples in the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The character of the form developed particularly with authors known for their short fiction, either by choice (they wrote nothing else) or by critical regard, which acknowledged the focus and craft required in the short form. An example is Jorge Luis Borges, who won American fame with "The Garden of Forking Paths", published in the August 1948 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Another example is O. Henry (author of "Gift of the Magi"), for whom the O. Henry Award is named. Other of his most popular, inventive and most often reprinted stories (among over 600) include: "The Ransom of Red Chief", "The Cop and the Anthem", "The Skylight Room", "After Twenty Years", A Municipal Report, An Unfinished Story, A Lickpenny Lover, Mammon and the Archer and The Last Leaf. American examples include: Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. Science fiction short story with a special poetic touch was a genre developed with great popular success by Ray Bradbury. The genre of the short story was often neglected until the second half of the 19th century.
The evolution of printing technologies and periodical editions were among the factors contributing to the increasing importance of short story publications. Pioneering role in founding the rules of the genre in the Western canon include, among others, Rudyard Kipling (United Kingdom), Anton Chekhov (Russia), Guy de Maupassant (France), Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (Mexico) and Rubén Darío (Nicaragua).
An important theoretical example for storytelling analysis is provided by Walter Benjamin in his essay The Storyteller where he argues about the decline of storytelling art and the incommunicability of experiences in the modern world. Oscar Wilde's essay The Decay of Lying and Henry James's The Art of Fiction are also partly related to this subject.
Short stories date back to oral storytelling traditions which originally produced epics such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Oral narratives were often told in the form of rhyming or rhythmic verse, often including recurring sections or, in the case of Homer, Homeric epithets. Such stylistic devices often acted as mnemonics for easier recall, rendition, and adaptation of the story. Short sections of verse might focus on individual narratives that could be told at one sitting. The overall arc of the tale would emerge only through the telling of multiple such sections.
The other ancient form of a short story, the anecdote, was popular under the Roman Empire. Anecdotes functioned as a sort of parable, a brief realistic narrative that embodies a point. Many surviving Roman anecdotes were collected in the 13th or 14th century as the Gesta Romanorum. Anecdotes remained popular in Europe well into the 18th century, when the fictional anecdotal letters of Sir Roger de Coverley were published.
In India, there is a rich heritage of ancient folktales as well as a compiled body of short fiction which shaped the sensibility of modern Indian short story. Some of the famous Sanskrit collection of legends, folktales, fairy tales, and fables are Panchatantra, Hitopadesha and Kathasaritsagara. Jataka tales, originally written in Pali, is a compilation of tales concerning the previous births of Lord Gautama Buddha. The Frame story or frame narrative or story within a story is a narrative technique that probably originated in ancient Indian works such as Panchatantra.
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 fiction) 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).
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.
Early examples of short stories were published separately between 1790 and 1810, but the first true collections of short stories appeared between 1810 and 1830 in several countries around the same period.
The first short stories in the United Kingdom were gothic tales like Richard Cumberland's "remarkable narrative" "The Poisoner of Montremos" (1791). Great novelists like Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens also wrote short stories.
One of the earliest short stories in the United States was Charles Brockden Brown's "Somnambulism" from 1805. Washington Irving wrote mysterious tales including "Rip van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820). John Neal aided in developing the genre between the late 1820s and the mid 1830s with tales like "Otter-Bag, the Oneida Chief" (1829) and "David Whicher," (1832), though he continued publishing short stories through the mid 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne published the first part of his Twice-Told Tales in 1837. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his tales of mystery and imagination between 1832 and 1849. Poe is often given the credit (by scholars such as M. H. Abrams) of establishing a short story as a genre of literature. Poe's classic stories are "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Gold Bug, and the first detective stories, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter". In "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) Poe argued that a literary work (short story) should be short enough for a reader to finish in one sitting.
In Germany, the first collection of short stories was by Heinrich von Kleist in 1810 and 1811. The Brothers Grimm published their first volume of collected fairy tales in 1812. E.T.A. Hoffmann followed with his own original fantasy tales, of which "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" (1816) and "The Sandman" are the most famous.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the growth of print magazines and journals created a strong demand for short fiction of between 3,000 and 15,000 words.
In the United Kingdom, Thomas Hardy wrote dozens of short stories, including "The Three Strangers" (1883), "A Mere Interlude" (1885) and "Barbara of the House of Grebe" (1890). Rudyard Kipling published short story collections for adults, e.g. Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), as well as for children, e.g. The Jungle Book (1894). In 1892, Arthur Conan Doyle brought the detective story to a new height with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. H.G. Wells wrote his first science fiction stories in the 1880s. He is best known for his renowned, "The Country of the Blind" (1904).
In the United States, Herman Melville published his story collection The Piazza Tales in 1856. "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" was the title story of Mark Twain's first book one year later. In 1884, Brander Matthews, the first American professor of dramatic literature, published The Philosophy of the Short-Story. During that same year, Matthews was the first one to name the emerging genre "short story". Another theorist of narrative fiction was Henry James. James wrote a lot of short stories himself, including "The Real Thing" (1892), "Maud-Evelyn" and The Beast in the Jungle (1903). In the 1890s, Kate Chopin published short stories in several magazines.
The most prolific French author of short stories was Guy de Maupassant. He composed short stories, "Boule de Suif" ("Ball of Fat", 1880) and "L'Inutile Beauté" ("The Useless Beauty", 1890) are good examples of French realism.
In Russia, Ivan Turgenev gained recognition with his story collection A Sportsman's Sketches. Nikolai Leskov created his first short stories in the 1860s. Late in his life Fyodor Dostoyevski wrote "The Meek One" (1876) and "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" (1877), two stories with great psychological and philosophical depth. Leo Tolstoy handled ethical questions in his short stories, for example in "Ivan the Fool" (1885), "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" (1886) and "Alyosha the Pot" (1905). The greatest specialist of the Russian short story, however, was Anton Chekhov. Classic examples of his realistic prose are "The Bet" (1889), "Ward No. 6" (1892), and "The Lady with the Dog" (1899). Maxim Gorky's best known short story is "Twenty-six Men and a Girl" (1899).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in India, Rabindranath Tagore published more than 150 short stories, on the lives of the poor and oppressed such as peasants, women, and villagers under colonial misrule and exploitation. Some of his famous short stories include "The Kabuliwala", "The Hungry Stone", "The Wife's Letter", "The Parrot's Training" and "Punishment". Tagore's contemporary, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was another pioneer in Bengali short stories. Chattopadhyay's stories focused on the social scenario of rural Bengal and the lives of common people, especially the oppressed classes. His most popular short stories include "Bindu's Son", "Abhagi's Heaven", "Mahesh", "Ram's Good Lesson", "Lalu" (3 parts) and "The Husband".
The prolific Indian author of short stories Munshi Premchand, pioneered the genre in the Hindustani language, writing a substantial body of short stories and novels in a style characterized by realism and an unsentimental and authentic introspection into the complexities of Indian society. Premchand's works include over 200 short stories (such as "The Shroud", "The Cost of Milk" and "Lottery").
The Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis was the most important short story writer from his country at the time, under influences (among others) of Xavier de Maistre, Lawrence Sterne, Guy de Maupassant. At the end of the 19th century, the writer João do Rio became popular by short stories about the bohemianism. Writing about the former slaves, and very ironical about nationalism, Lima Barreto died almost forgotten, but became very popular in the 20th century.
In Portuguese literature, the major names of the time are Almeida Garrett and the historian and novelist Alexandre Herculano. Still influential, Eça de Queiroz produced some short stories with a style influenced by Émile Zola, Balzac and Dickens.
In the United Kingdom, periodicals like The Strand Magazine and Story-Teller contributed to the popularity of the short story. Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916), also known by his pen name of Saki, wrote satirical short stories about Edwardian England. W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote over a hundred short stories, was one of the most popular authors of his time. P.G. Wodehouse published his first collection of comical stories about valet Jeeves in 1917. Many detective stories were written by G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Short stories by Virginia Woolf are "Kew Gardens" (1919) and "Solid Objects," about a politician with mental problems. Graham Greene wrote his Twenty-One Stories between 1929 and 1954. A specialist in the short story was V.S. Pritchett, whose first collection appeared in 1932. Arthur C. Clarke published his first science fiction story, "Travel by Wire!" in 1937. Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark and L.P. Hartley were other popular British storytellers whose career started in this period.
In Ireland, James Joyce published his short story collection Dubliners in 1914. These stories, written in a more accessible style than his later novels, are based on careful observation of the inhabitants of his birth city.
In the first half of the 20th century, a number of high-profile American magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, Scribner's, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and The Bookman published short stories in each issue. The demand for quality short stories was so great and the money paid for such so well that F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly turned to short-story (as Matthews preferred to write it) writing to pay his numerous debts. His first collection Flappers and Philosophers appeared in book form in 1920. William Faulkner wrote over one hundred short stories. Go Down, Moses, a collection of seven stories, appeared in 1941. Ernest Hemingway's concise writing style was perfectly fit for shorter fiction. Stories like "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" (1926), "Hills Like White Elephants" (1927) and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1936) are only a few pages long but carefully crafted. Dorothy Parker's the bittersweet story "Big Blonde" debuted in 1929. A popular science fiction story is "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov.
In Uruguay, Horacio Quiroga became one of the most influentials short story writers in the Spanish language, with a clear influence from Edgar Allan Poe, he had a great skill using the supernatural and the bizarre to show the struggle of man and animal to survive. He also excelled in portraying mental illness and hallucinatory states.
In India, the master of the short story in the Urdu language, Saadat Hasan Manto is revered for his exceptional depth, irony, and sardonic humor. The author of some 250 short stories, radio plays, essays, reminiscences, and a novel, Manto is widely admired for his analyses of violence, bigotry, prejudice, and the relationships between reason and unreason. Combining realism with surrealism and irony, Manto's works such as the celebrated short story Toba Tek Singh are aesthetic masterpieces that continue to give profound insight into the nature of human loss, violence, and devastation. Another famous Urdu writer is Ismat Chughtai whose short story "Lihaaf" (The Quilt) on a lesbian relationship between an upper-class Muslim woman and her maidservant created great controversy following its publication in 1942.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927) is called the Father of the Japanese short story.
In Brazil, the most famous modern short story writer is Mário de Andrade. At the time, Paulistan writer António de Alcantâra Machado became very popular from his collection of short stories titled, Brás, Bexiga e Barra Funda (1928), about several Italian neighborhoods, but now he is mostly read in just São Paulo. Also, novelist Graciliano Ramos and poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade have significant short story works.
The period following World War II saw a great flowering of literary short fiction in the United States. The New Yorker continued to publish the works of the form's leading mid-century practitioners, including Shirley Jackson, whose story, "The Lottery", published in 1948, elicited the strongest response in the magazine's history to that time. Other frequent contributors during the last 1940s included John Cheever, John Steinbeck, Jean Stafford, and Eudora Welty. Cheever is best known for "The Swimmer" (1964) which beautifully blends realism and surrealism. J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories (1953) experimented with point of view and voice, while Flannery O'Connor's well-known story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1955) reinvigorated the Southern Gothic style. Cultural and social identity played a considerable role in much of the short fiction of the 1960s. Philip Roth and Grace Paley cultivated distinctive Jewish-American voices. Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" (1961) adopted a consciously feminist perspective. James Baldwin's collection Going to Meet the Man (1965) told stories of African-American life. Frank O'Connor's The Lonely Voice, an exploration of the short story, appeared in 1963. Wallace Stegner's short stories are primarily set in the American West. Stephen King published many short stories in men's magazines in the 1960s and after. King's interest is found in the supernatural and macabre. The 1970s saw the rise of the postmodern short story in the works of Donald Barthelme and John Barth. Traditionalists including John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates maintained a significant influence on the form. Minimalism gained widespread influence in the 1980s, most notably in the work of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie.
Canadian short story writers include Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and Lynn Coady. In the year 2013 Alice Munro became the first writer of only short stories to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her award-winning short story collections include Dance of the Happy Shades, Lives of Girls and Women, Who Do You Think You Are?, The Progress of Love, The Love of a Good Woman and Runaway.
In the United Kingdom, Daphne du Maurier wrote suspense stories like "The Birds" (1952) and "Don't Look Now" (1971). Roald Dahl was the master of the twist-in-the-tale. Short story collections like Lamb to the Slaughter (1953) and Kiss Kiss (1960) illustrate his dark humor.
Some of the Bengali short story writers of the post-Tagore and post-Sarat Chandra generation are Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Manik Bandyopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Mahasweta Devi, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Ramapada Chowdhury and Humayun Ahmed. The role of the bi-monthly magazine Desh (first published in 1933) is imperative in the development of the Bengali short story. Two of the most popular detective story writers of Bengali literature are Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi) and Satyajit Ray (the creator of Feluda). The canon of Hindi short story was enriched by the contributions of Jaishankar Prasad, Amrita Pritam, Dharamvir Bharti, Bhisham Sahni, Krishna Sobti, Nirmal Verma, Kamleshwar, Mannu Bhandari, Harishankar Parsai and others.
In Brazil, the short story became popular among female writers like Clarice Lispector, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Adélia Prado, who wrote about their society from a feminine viewpoint, although the genre has great male writers like Dalton Trevisan, Autran Dourado Moacyr Scliar and Carlos Heitor Cony too. Also, writing about poverty and the favelas, João Antonio became a well-known writer. Other post-modern short fiction authors include writers Hilda Hilst and Caio Fernando Abreu. Detective literature was led by Rubem Fonseca. It is also necessary to mention João Guimarães Rosa, wrote short stories in the book Sagarana using a complex, experimental language based on tales of oral tradition.
Portuguese writers like Vergílio Ferreira, Fernando Goncalves Namora, and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen are among the most influential short story writers from 20th-century Portuguese language literature. Manuel da Silva Ramos is one of the most well-known names of postmodernism in the country. Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago published a few short stories, but became popular from his novels.
The Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira is one of the most well-known writers from his country and has several short stories. José Eduardo Agualusa is also increasingly read in Portuguese-speaking countries.
Mozambican Mia Couto is a widely known writer of postmodern prose, and he is read even in non-Portuguese speaking countries. Other Mozambican writers such as Suleiman Cassamo, Paulina Chiziane, and Eduardo White are gaining popularity with Portuguese-speakers too.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is one of the most famous writers of short stories in the Spanish language. "The Library of Babel" (1941) and "The Aleph" (1945) handle difficult subjects like infinity. Two of the most representative writers of the Magical realism genre are also widely known Argentinian short story writers: Adolfo Bioy Casares and Julio Cortázar.
In Colombia, the Nobel prize laureate author Gabriel García Márquez is the main novelist and short story writer, known by his magical realist stories and his defense of the Communist Party in his country.
Multi-awarded Philippine writer Peter Solis Nery is one of the most famous writers of short stories in Hiligaynon language. His stories "Lirio" (1998), "Candido" (2007), "Donato Bugtot" (2011), and "Si Padre Olan kag ang Dios" (2013) are all gold prize winners at the Palanca Awards of Philippine Literature.
Sales of short-story fiction are strong. In the UK sales jumped 45% in 2017, driven by collections from international names such as Alice Munro, new writers to the genre such as Tom Hanks, and the revival of short story salons, such as those held by short fiction company, Pin Drop Studio.
More than 690,000 short stories and anthologies were sold in the UK in 2017, generating £5.88 million, the genre's highest sales since 2010.
In 2012 Pin Drop Studio launched a short story salon held regularly in London and other major cities. Short story writers who have appeared at the salon to read their short stories to a live audience include Ben Okri, Lionel Shriver, Elizabeth Day, A.L. Kennedy, William Boyd, Graham Swift, David Nicholls, Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Julian Barnes, Evie Wylde and Claire Fuller.
Prominent short story awards such as The Sunday Times Short Story Award, the BBC National Short Story Award , the Royal Society of Literature's V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize , The London Magazine Short Story Prize , the Pin Drop Studio Short Story Award and many others, attract hundreds of entries each year. Published and non-published writers take part, sending their stories from across the world.
In 2013, Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—her citation read "master of the contemporary short story." She said she hopes the award would bring readership for the short story, as well as recognize the short story on its own merit, rather than "something that people do before they write their first novel." Short stories have been cited with regard to other laureates as well, Paul Heyse in 1910 and Gabriel García Márquez in 1982.
As a concentrated, concise form of narrative and descriptive prose fiction, the short story has been theorized through the traditional elements of dramatic structure: exposition (the introduction of setting, situation, and main characters), complication (the event that introduces the conflict), rising action, crisis (the decisive moment for the protagonist and his commitment to a course of action), climax (the point of highest interest in terms of the conflict and the point with the most action) and resolution (the point when the conflict is resolved). Because of their length, short stories may or may not follow this pattern. For example, modern short stories only occasionally have an exposition, more typically beginning in the middle of the action (in medias res). 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. As with any art form, the exact characteristics of a short story will vary by the creator.