The Long and Short of the Short Story

The Long and Short of the Short Story

What is considered the world’s first short story? Who wrote it and when? What are the origins of the format? What elements make up a short story? What are the main types of short stories? And, which are the most famous?

Geoffrey Chaucer’s early 14th-century ‘Canterbury Tales’ are widely regarded to be the first modern English literature collection of short stories. Although, there were oral and written tales that appeared from Egypt to India much, much earlier. In fact, some of the earliest narratives were composed on papyrus in Ancient Egypt. Still, there’s an ongoing debate if these are indeed the very first of their kind.

The World’s First Short Story

It’s difficult to pinpoint the very first short story ever written, as storytelling has been an integral part of human culture since ancient times. However, one of the earliest known examples of a short story is “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” which was written in Ancient Egypt during the 2nd millennium BC.

Other examples of early short stories include Aesop’s Fables (6th century BC) and the collection of stories known as One Thousand and One Nights (8th-14th century AD). However, a number of scholars believe the first true literary short story was Sir Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers, which was published in 1827 as the second story in The Chronicles of Canongate.

In modern literature, the development of the short story as a distinct literary form is often attributed to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote and published many short stories in the mid-19th century. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, is considered by many to be the first modern detective story and a groundbreaking work of short fiction.

The Origins of the Short Story

The short story format has its roots in the oral storytelling traditions of various cultures around the world. Before the advent of writing, stories were passed down through generations by word of mouth, often in the form of short, concise tales that could be easily memorized and repeated.

As writing systems developed, short stories began to be written down, often as part of larger narrative works such as epics, myths, and legends. In ancient Greece, for example, short stories were often included in collections of fables and moral tales.

The modern short story format, with its focus on brevity and economy of language, emerged in the 19th century, particularly in the United States and Europe. Authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and Anton Chekhov experimented with the form, using it to explore themes of psychology, morality, and social commentary. Today, the short story remains a popular and versatile form of literature, celebrated for its ability to capture the complexities of the human experience in a brief and powerful format.

Key Elements that Make Up a Short Story

Short stories are typically fiction and written in prose. Although, some credibly argue that the “Epic of Gilgamesh” a mythic poem dating back to the third millennium BC, could be considered a short story, despite its length. Regardless, a short story typically includes several key elements, including:

  • Plot: The sequence of events that make up the story, including the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
  • Characters: The people or animals who appear in the story and who drive the plot forward. Characters may be developed through their actions, dialogue, and inner thoughts and emotions.
  • Setting: The time and place in which the story takes place, which can influence the plot and the characters’ actions and motivations.
  • Point of view: The perspective from which the story is told. This can be first-person, third-person limited, or third-person omniscient.
  • Theme: The underlying message or idea that the story explores. Themes can be explicit or implicit and may be related to topics such as love, loss, friendship, or societal issues.
  • Style: The way in which the story is written, including elements such as tone, mood, and language choices. Style can influence the reader’s experience of the story and can convey important information about the characters and the setting.

Together, these elements combine to create a rich and engaging narrative that draws the reader into the world of the story and explores the complexities of the human experience.

How Long is a Short Story?

The length of a short story can vary, but typically it is considered to be a work of fiction that is shorter than a novella and longer than a traditional anecdote or flash fiction piece. Generally, a short story is between 1,000 and 7,500 words in length, although some may be shorter or longer than this.

The exact length of a short story can depend on a variety of factors, including the writer’s personal style, the genre or subject matter of the story, and the intended audience. However, in general, a short story should be long enough to fully develop its characters and plot, but not so long that it loses the brevity and focus that are characteristic of the form.

By contrast, the shortest short story is generally considered to have been written by none other than Ernest Hemingway, who, folklore states, on a bet, wrote in the 1920s, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

What are the Main Types of Short Stories?

Basically, there are four short fiction forms: the novella, novelette, short story, and flash fiction. But, short stories can be classified into different types based on their structure, tone, and content. Here are four main types of short stories:

  • Literary: These are stories that focus on character development, exploring themes and emotions, and often have a complex and nuanced narrative structure. They are often seen as more serious and thought-provoking than other types of short stories.
  • Mystery: These stories involve a puzzle or crime that must be solved by the protagonist, often a detective or amateur sleuth. They are characterized by suspense, tension, and twists and turns that keep the reader guessing until the very end.
  • Science fiction and fantasy: These stories are set in imaginary or futuristic worlds and often feature speculative elements, such as advanced technology, magical powers, or extraterrestrial life. They explore themes related to human nature and society and can be both entertaining and thought-provoking.
  • Horror: These stories are designed to frighten and unsettle the reader, often by invoking supernatural or monstrous elements. They can be gory or psychological, and often explore themes related to fear, death, and the unknown.

Of course, there are many other types of short stories as well, and many stories blend elements of different genres and styles. The type of short story an author chooses to write depends on their interests, skills, and the message or story they wish to convey.

Most Famous Short Stories

There are many short stories that have achieved fame and enduring popularity, but here are a few examples of the most famous short stories of all time:

  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: This 1843 tale of murder and madness is one of Poe’s most famous works and is widely considered a masterpiece of the short story form.
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson: This 1948 story shocked readers with its depiction of a small town’s annual ritual of selecting a sacrificial victim. It has since become a classic of the horror and suspense genre.
  • “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry: This heartwarming story, first published in 1905, tells the story of a young couple’s sacrifice and love for each other during the holiday season.
  • “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway: This 1936 story explores the themes of regret and mortality through the tale of a writer on safari in Africa who reflects on his life while dying from an infected wound.
  • “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner: This 1930 story, set in the American South, explores themes of tradition, isolation, and decay through the tragic tale of a reclusive woman’s life and death.

These are just a few examples of the many famous and influential short stories that have been written over the centuries, and new ones continue to be written and celebrated today. Other notable mentions include: “The Dead,” “The Dubliners” (1914) – James Joyce, “Lamb to the Slaughter” (1953) – Roald Dahl, “The Necklace” (1884) – Guy de Maupassant, and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) – Flannery O’Connor.

The art form of the short story continues to this day and there are many contemporary authors around the world who still write works in this style of fictional prose.