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A short story is a brief work of literature, usually written in narrative prose. Emerging from earlier oral storytelling traditions in the 17th century, the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterization. At its most prototypical the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a "single effect" or mood. In so doing, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel, authors of both generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.
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.
The short story has been considered both an apprenticeship form preceding more lengthy works, and a crafted form in its own right, collected together in books of similar length, price, and distribution as novels. 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 form.
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 "Thomas Le Moineau (Le Moile)" (1846). Interpreting this standard nowadays is problematic, since the expected length of "one sitting" may now be briefer than it was in Poe's era. Other definitions place the maximum word count of the short story at anywhere from 1,000 to 9,000 words. 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, or 5 to 20 pages. Stories of fewer than 1,000 words are sometimes referred to as "short short stories", or "flash fiction."
As a point of reference for the genre writer, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define short story length Nebula Awards for science fiction submission guidelines as having a word count of fewer than 7,500.
Longer stories that cannot be called novels are sometimes considered "novellas", 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.
As a concentrated form of narrative prose fiction, the short story has been theorised 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 forms, the exact characteristics of a short story will vary by creator. Short stories tend to be less complex than novels. Usually a short story focuses on one incident; has a single plot, a single setting, and a small number of characters; and covers a short period of time. The modern short story form emerged from oral story-telling traditions, the brief moralistic narratives of parables and fables, and the prose anecdote, all of these being forms of a swiftly sketched situation that quickly comes to its point. 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. American examples include Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.
Short stories date back to oral storytelling 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.
There are early examples of short stories 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 some 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). 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. Classic stories are "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Pit and the Pendulum", and the first detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". In "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) Poe argued that a literary work 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 '11. 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) is the most famous.
In Russia, Alexander Pushkin wrote romantic and mysterious tales, including "The Blizzard" (1831) and "The Queen of Spades" (1834). Nikolai Gogol's "Nevsky Prospekt" (1835), "The Nose" (1836) and "The Overcoat" (1842) are dark humorous tales about human misery.
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.
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 grown-ups, 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. One of his best known is "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. At 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. Stories like "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).
The most prolific Indian author of short stories was Munshi Premchand, who 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 work including his over 200 short stories such as the story Lottery and his novel Godaan remain substantial works.
In the United Kingdom, periodicals like The Strand Magazine, The Sketch, Harper's 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 butler Jeeves in 1917. Lots of 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 of 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.
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, 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 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 bittersweet story "Big Blonde" saw the light in 1929. A popular science fiction story is "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov.
After 1945 
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 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 a lot of short stories in men's magazines in the 1960s and after. The 1970s saw the rise of the post-modern short story in the works of Donald Barthelme and John Barth. Traditionalists including John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates maintained significant influence on the form. Minimalism gained widespread influence in the 1980s, most notably in the work of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie.
The Canadian-born American writer Saul Bellow published "Mosby's Memoirs" in 1968, a story about an old intellectual. Alice Munro, who has been described as the Canadian Chekhov, started publishing in the same year.
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 humour.
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.
Short stories have frequently been adapted for radio dramas, as on NBC Presents: Short Story (1951–52). A popular example of this is "The Hitch-Hiker", read by Orson Welles. Sometimes, short stories are adapted into television specials, such as "12:01 PM", "Nightmare at 20,000 feet", "The Lottery", and "Button, Button". Others have been made into short films, often rewritten by other people, and even as feature length films, such is the case of "Children of the Corn", "The Birds", "Brokeback Mountain", "Who Goes There?", "Duel", "A Sound of Thunder", "The Body", "Total Recall", "The Lawnmower Man", and "Hearts in Atlantis".
See also 
- List of short story competitions
- Flash fiction (also called microfiction)
- Irish short story
- Literary journal
- Mini saga
- Sketch story
- Tale (disambiguation)
- "Short story". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
- Poe, Edgar Allen (1984). Edgar Allen Poe: Essays and Reviews. Library of America. pp. 569–77.
- Cuddon, J. A. (1999). The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (3rd ed.). London: Penguin. p. 864.
- Abrams, M. H. (1999). Glossary of Literary Terms (7th ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace. pp. 286–287. ISBN 0-155-05452-X.
- Deirdre Fulton (2008-06-11). "Who reads short shorts?". theponeix.com. Retrieved 2009-06-15.
- "Complete Nebula Awards Rules Including the Ray Bradbury and Andre Norton Awards (Revised & Updated)". sfwa.org. Retrieved 2012-02-17.
- Short Story in Jacob E. Safra e.a., The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia volume 10, Chicago, 1998.
- Internet Book List :: Book Information: Oxford Book of Gothic Tales.
- "Poe's The Philosophy of Composition: a Study Guide". Cummingsstudyguides.net. Retrieved 2013-04-22.
- "V.S. Pritchett". Kirjasto.sci.fi. 1997-03-21. Retrieved 2013-04-22.
- Margaret Drabble reads "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield | Books | guardian.co.uk
- Mosby’s Memoirs Summary - Saul Bellow - Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition
- Munro giving up the writing life
Further reading 
- Gelfant, Blanche and Graver, Lawrence, ed. (2000). The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story. Columbia University Press.
- Hart, James (ed.). Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford University Press.
- Magill, Frank, ed. (1997). Short Story Writers. Pasadena, California: Salem Press.
- Watson, Noelle, ed. (1994). Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Detroit: St. James Press.
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