“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”
– Edgar Allan Poe
A short story is prose, which is distinct from longer narratives such as epic, novels, and romance.
It is essentially concerned with a single effect conveyed in a single episode or scene and involves a limited number of characters. A short story can have even one character and in more avant-garde examples, there need not be even a plot or a character.
It may also happen that a short story may concentrate on the creation of mood or atmosphere rather than the telling of a story. A short story focuses on the outcome of the events (Ex: Sherlock Holmes; O. Henry, Saki, Poe —often considered the originator of the short story). Still, in the works of some artists, there is more attention on character: spiritual, moral, psychological qualities (Ex., Hemingway, Chekov, Melville). Strictly speaking, a short story differs from a novel in terms of “magnitude.” Poe, one of the earliest one to theorize the genre defines it as “as a narrative which can be read at one sitting of from half an hour to 2 hours, and is limited to ‘a certain unique or single effect’ to which every detail is subordinate.”
Scholars always differ over the ideal length of a short story. D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox (1923) is 30, 000 words long. Still, like the novel, the form is flexible and capable of endless variety. But unlike the novel, it has no room for leisurely development of characters or the setting. A remarkable feature of the short story is that it often begins on the verge of the climax, whereas its exposition and dénouement are swift.
Characteristics of a Short Story
A short story is a narrative, that is, it consists of a series of events that are told by a narrator to a reader or a listener.
All short stories have a beginning, and ending and a general purpose.
The main features of short stories are:
1. Setting – the place and time where the events take place. These can be stated directly or implied. The short story usually covers a short time span. It is unusual to have several settings in a short story because of it limited length.
2. characters – the number of characters is limited. There may be only one main character (protagonist). We usually meet this character at a crucial point in his life. We may only come to know one or a few of his/her qualities. The other people in the story are usually minor characters.
3. events – the facts that drive forward the action and form the storyline. The way they are arranged and presented by the narrator is called the plot. The short story has one main plot; there is no room for sub-plots.
4. a closure – the “ending” of the narrative, which may solve the problematic issues – in this case the ending is closed – or leave situations unresolved – in this case the ending is open and story ends with the climax.
5. a narrator – the “voice” that tells the story. The narrator must not be confused with the author, who is a real person. The narrator is purely fictional.
Short stories very seldom have complex plots. Therefore, intensity is a very important feature of a short story. Narrative style is the way the writer uses language to express meaning. Short story writers usually let their reader work things out for themselves. The number of words is limited. Typical feature of the short story is its economy. The way something is said (form) influences what is said (content) and vice versa.
The short story is a newer form of literature than other genres, like drama, poetry, or novels. Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote his tales of horror in the 19th century, is usually acknowledged as one of the first short story writers. Since then, many writers have chosen the genre to express their ideas. Each writer focuses on different elements of the story. Some emphasize theme, and use the short story to teach a moral or a lesson. Others create atmosphere in their stories, or develop character or setting.