What is a Short Story?
Short stories are a glorious art form.
Now that I have that out of the way, let’s start talking about them behind their back. I’ve been asked on occasion what defines a short story, and what do all short stories have in common. The answer to that second question may seem flippant, but it is heartfelt. The only thing they all have in common is a beginning, middle and end.
To enhance that answer, short stories are so varied, you can approach them from so many angles, that is, quite literally, the only thing they have in common. To go even more deeply, even the beginning, middle and end can look different in different stories. Some of my favorite stories are experimental, nontraditional or “non-linear.” The beginning can happen in the middle. The ending can be so vague as to seem non-existent, or can swing back to the beginning. Richard A. Lupoff’s 12:01 PM has several beginnings, including the end. This is one of the things I love about short stories, about story telling in general, actually, that they can be so varied and unexpected.
What defines short stories also requires a flippant sounding answer: It is a story that is shorter than a novel or a novella. How short is up to many different standards. Some say anything less than 9,000 words. Some say anything less than 20,000. Some, less than 7,000. Some even call a story shorter than 1,000 a “short short” but I think that’s making a distinction that is entirely too fine for any practical purpose besides academia, which isn’t usually very practical at all.
Ernest Hemmingway famously won a bet by creating a short story with only six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” I shiver every time I read that one, and it always makes me think.
Most, but not all short stories have a limited number of characters. Shirley Jackson’s wonderfully dark The Lottery, however, definitely a short story, has well over ten characters, most of them fairly well developed. It does, of course, only have one location. Most, but not all, short stories have a limited number of locations. Kipling’s classic Man Who Would Be King has several, unless you consider all of India one location. Some have defined short stories as those that have only one or a few conflicts in them, or a single plot. Delany’s award-winning Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones has more complications and plot turns than some novels, although some call it a novelette, which, I suppose, is somewhere between a short story and a novella.
So what, exactly, is a short story? That is up to the individual writer, reader, editor or publication to decide in their own, quirky, individual way. I could be coy and say it doesn’t matter, just read them and get on with your day, but I’m much too polite to give such a response.
I like to think of them as more of a narrative sketch or study than a full painting or sculpture, more a bagatelle or caprice than a symphony or opera, more an annoying list of similes than a full-blown crazy-making analysis. This is, of course, also insufficient. The sketches of Dürer or Michelangelo are much more detailed and complete than the sculptures of Picasso or the paintings of Mondrian, so even my annoying similes don’t quite hit the mark.
Even so, thinking of short stories as more like sketches of events than novels (or even novellas) is as useful a distinction as any. The characters and locations will be more sketches of people and place than would be necessary in a novel. Communicating a central point or idea is more important than delving into specifics.
Now that we have cleared up the mystery, or, perhaps, laid more mud on it, I say go read one, then get on with your day. Read two, they’re short.
Geoff Hoff is a best-selling author and also writes how-to writing guides.