What is a Short Story?

Compared to novels, short stories often get overlooked as an art form, but these singular works of fiction deserve a closer look. Short stories give readers all the compelling characters, drama, and descriptive language of great fiction, but in a truly compact package.

So what is the secret behind those potent, carefully written gems? Here we tackle the definition of a short story, the key elements, examples, and some of the most common questions about short stories.

What is a short story?

A short story is a work of prose fiction that can be read in one sitting—usually between 20 minutes to an hour. There is no maximum length, but the average short story is 1,000 to 7,500 words, with some outliers reaching 10,000 or 15,000 words. At around 10 to 25 pages, that makes short stories much shorter than novels, with only a few approaching novella length. A piece of fiction shorter than 1,000 words is considered a “short short story” or “flash fiction,” and anything less than 300 words is rightfully called “microfiction.”

What are the key elements of a short story?

The setting of a short story is often simplified (one time and place), and one or two main characters may be introduced without full backstories. In this concise, concentrated format, every word and story detail has to work extra hard!

Short stories typically focus on a single plot instead of multiple subplots, like you might see in novels. Some stories follow a traditional narrative arc, with exposition (description) at the beginning, rising action, a climax (peak moment of conflict or action), and a resolution at the end. However, contemporary short fiction is more likely to begin in the middle of the action (in medias res), drawing readers right into a dramatic scene.

While short stories of the past often revolved around a central theme or moral lesson, today it is common to find stories with ambiguous endings. This type of unresolved story invites open-ended readings and suggests a more complex understanding of reality and human behavior.

The short story genre is well suited to experimentation in prose writing style and form, but most short story authors still work to create a distinct mood using classic literary devices (point of view, imagery, foreshadowing, metaphor, diction/word choice, tone, and sentence structure).

Short stories have one or two main characters

What is the history of the short story?

Short-form storytelling can be traced back to ancient times in legends, mythology, folklore, and fables found in communities all over the world. Some of these stories existed in written form, but many were passed down to generations through oral traditions. Early examples of short stories ranged from the Middle Eastern folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights (collected by multiple authors between the 8th and 14th centuries, later known in English as Arabian Nights) to the English collection of Canterbury Tales (written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century).

It wasn’t until the early 19th century that short story collections by individual authors appeared more regularly in print. The Brothers Grimm published their volume of fairy tales in 1812. Edgar Allen Poe revealed his tales of mystery and Gothic fiction between 1832 and 1849, declaring the short story as superior to the novel because it could be read in “a single sitting.” Many literary critics also credit Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov as a founder of the modern short story, based on his esteemed writing in the late 1800s.

Short stories gained popularity in the second half of the 19th century, with the growth of print magazines and journals. Newspaper and magazine editors began publishing stories as commercial entertainment, creating a demand for short, plot-driven narratives with mass appeal. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, well-known periodicals, like The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine, were paying good money for short stories that showed more literary technique and artistry. Higher standards and higher pay meant aspiring writers could actually earn a living while elevating their craft.

That golden era of publishing gave rise to the short story as we know it today—a real literary art form. The decades after World War II (post-1945) saw a surge of literary short stories being written and circulated, but contemporary authors never saw the same level of profits from publishing individual stories. Today, some literary magazines pay a small rate, but most short stories are printed without compensating authors.

What are the different types of short stories?

As with novels, short stories come in all kinds of categories: action, adventure, biography, comedy, crime, detective, drama, dystopia, fable, fantasy, history, horror, mystery, philosophy, politics, romance, satire, science fiction, supernatural, thriller, tragedy, and Western.

Here are some literary styles/movements, with examples of authors and the years in which they wrote:

Gothic fiction: Stories that explore human psychology, fear, death, and imagination by incorporating mystery, horror, suspense, or supernatural elements (Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1830s–1850s)

Realism: Representing subject matter in a detailed way that feels true to life, without artistic conventions (Kate Chopin, O. Henry, Anton Chekhov, 1850 to early 1900s)

Modernism: Experimenting with narrative form, style, and chronology (inner monologues, stream of consciousness) to capture the experience of the individual (James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, 1910–1920s)

Science fiction: Presenting imagined futures or dystopian worlds in which humans face profound technological, social, or environmental changes (Ray Bradbury, 1940s–1950s)

Magical realism: Combining realistic narrative or setting with elements of surrealism, dreams, or fantasy (Gabriel García Márquez, 1960s–1970s)

Postmodernism: Using fragmentation, paradox, or unreliable narrators to explore the relationship between the author, reader, and text (Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, 1950s–1970s)

Minimalism: Writing characterized by brevity, straightforward language, and a lack of plot resolutions (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, 1980s–1990s)

Short stories come in all kinds of genres

What are some famous short stories?

“The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) – Edgar Allen Poe

“The Necklace” (1884) – Guy de Maupassant

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“The Story of an Hour” (1894) – Kate Chopin

“Gift of the Magi” (1905) – O. Henry

“The Dead,” “The Dubliners” (1914) – James Joyce

“The Garden Party” (1920) – Katherine Mansfield

“Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) – Ernest Hemingway

“The Lottery” (1948) – Shirley Jackson

“Lamb to the Slaughter” (1953) – Roald Dahl

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (1955) – Gabriel García Márquez

“Sonny’s Blues” (1957) – James Baldwin

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1961) – Flannery O’Connor

What are some popular short story collections?

The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – Haruki Murakami

Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – Raymond Carver

The Stories of John Cheever – John Cheever

Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut

Complete Stories – Dorothy Parker

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

Suddenly a Knock at the Door – Etgar Keret

 

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