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A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas (in the 20th and 21st century sense) and novels or books. Short story definitions based upon length differ somewhat even among professional writers, due somewhat in part to the fragmentation of the medium into genres. Since the short story format includes a wide range of genres and styles, the actual length is mitigated somewhere between the individual author's preference (or the story's actual needs in terms of creative trajectory or story arc) and the submission guidelines relevant to the story's actual market. Guidelines vary greatly among publishers.
Many short story writers define their work through a combination of creative, personal expression and artistic integrity. As a result, many attempt to resist categorization by genre as well as definition by numbers, finding such approaches limiting and counter-intuitive to artistic form and reasoning. As a result, definitions of the short story based upon length splinter even more when the writing process is taken into consideration.
Short stories have their origins in oral story-telling traditions and the prose anecdote, a swiftly-sketched situation that quickly comes to its point. With the rise of the comparatively realistic novel, the short story evolved as a miniature version, with some of its first perfectly independent examples in the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Other nineteenth-century writers well-known for their short stories are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Guy de Maupassant, Bolesław Prus and Anton Chekhov. Short stories were a staple of early-19th-century magazines and often led to fame and novel-length projects for their authors. More recently, short stories have been reprinted in anthologies, categorized by topic or critical reception. Today many authors release collections of their short stories.
Some authors are known almost entirely for their short stories, either by choice (they wrote nothing else) or by critical regard (short-story writing is thought of as a challenging art). 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. American examples include Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.
Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bolesław Prus, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, P.G. Wodehouse and Ernest Hemingway were highly accomplished writers of both short stories and novels.
Short stories have often been adapted for half-hour and hour radio dramas, as on NBC Presents: Short Story (1951–52).
The art of story telling is doubtlessly older than record of civilization. Even the so-called modern short story, which was the latest of the major literary types to evolve, has an ancient lineage. Perhaps the oldest and most direct ancestor of the short story is the anecdote and illustrative story, straight to the point. The ancient parable and fable, starkly brief narrative used to enforce some moral or spiritual truth, anticipate the severe brevity and unity of some short stories written today.
Short stories tend to be less complex than novels. Usually a short story focuses on only one incident, has a single plot, a single setting, a small number of characters, and covers a short period of time.
In longer forms of fiction, stories tend to contain certain core 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); resolution (the point when the conflict is resolved); and moral.
Because of their length, short stories may or may not follow this pattern. Some do not follow patterns at all. For example, modern short stories only occasionally have an exposition. More typical, though, is an abrupt beginning, with the story starting 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 creator.
When short stories intend to convey a specific ethical or moral perspective, they fall into a more specific sub-category called Parables (or Fables). This specific kind of short story has been used by spiritual and religious leaders worldwide to inspire, enlighten, and educate their followers.
See the article novella for related debate about length.
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). Other definitions place the maximum word length at anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 words. As a point of reference for the science fiction genre writer, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America defines short story length in its Nebula Awards for science fiction submission guidelines as having a word count of less than 7,500. In contemporary usage, the term short story most often refers to a work of fiction no longer than 20,000 words and no shorter than 1,000. Stories less than 1,000 words are usually referred to either as "short short fiction" or "short shorts" or even "flash fiction".
Short stories date back to oral story-telling traditions which originally produced epics such as 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.
Fables, succinct tales with an explicit "moral," were said by the Greek historian Herodotus to have been invented in the 6th century BCE by a Greek slave named Aesop, though other times and nationalities have also been given for him. These ancient fables are today known as Aesop's Fables.
The other ancient form of 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 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 fictions) 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.
Today's short stories emerged as their own genre in the early 19th century. Early examples of short stories include the Brothers Grimm's Fairy Tales (1824–26) and Nikolai Gogol's Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831–32). The first examples in the United States are Charles Brockden Brown's "Somnambulism" (1805), Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842).
In the latter 19th century, the growth of print magazines and journals created a strong demand for short fiction of between 3,000 and 15,000 words. Famous short stories of this period include Bolesław Prus's "A Legend of Old Egypt" (1888) and Anton Chekhov's "Ward No. 6" (1892).
At the same time, the first literary theories about the short story appeared. A widely known one is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846). In 1901, Brander Matthews, the first American professor of dramatic literature, published "The Philosophy of the Short-Story."
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 published short stories in each issue. The demand for quality short stories was so great and the money paid for such so high that F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly turned to short-story writing to pay his numerous debts.
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. J. D. Salinger's “Nine Stories” (1953) experimented with point of view and voice, while Flannery O’Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) reinvigorated the Southern Gothic style. When Life magazine published Ernest Hemingway's long short story (or novella) The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, the issue containing this story sold 5,300,000 copies in only two days.
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” adopted a consciously feminist perspective. James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” told stories of African-American life. Frank O’Connor’s “The Lonely Voice,” a classic exploration of the short story, appeared in 1963. The 1970s saw the rise of the post-modern short story in the works of Donald Barthelme and John Barth. The same decade witnessed the establishment of the Pushcart Press, which, under the leadership of Bill Henderson, began publishing the best of the independent and small presses.
Miminalism gained widespread influence in the 1980s, most notably in the work of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Bobbi Ann Mason. However, traditionalists including John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates maintained significant influence on the form, as did Canadian author Alice Munro. John Gardner’s seminal reference text, “The Art of Fiction” appeared in 1983.
Many of the American short stories of the 1990s feature magical realism. Among the leading practitioners in this style were Steven Millhauser and Robert Olen Butler. Stuart Dybek gained prominence for his depictions of life in Chicago’s Polish neighborhoods and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried" tackled the legacy of the Vietnam War. Louise Erdrich wrote poignantly of Native American life. T. C. Boyle and David Foster Wallace explored the psychology of popular culture.
The first years of the twenty-first century saw the emergence of a new generation of young writers including Jhumpa Lahiri, Kevin Brockmeier, George Saunders and Dan Chaon. Blogs and e-zines joined traditional paper-based literary journals in showcasing the work of emerging authors.
Short Stories may refer to one of the following.
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