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Short Stories: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition
  • 1:00 Characteristics
  • 2:35 Examples
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

We've all read short stories, such as 'A Country Doctor' by Franz Kafka or Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart.' In this lesson, you'll learn more about the characteristics of the short story and explore some noteworthy examples by American and European writers.

Definition

A short story typically takes the form of a brief fictional work, usually written in prose. The earliest precursors to the short story can be found in the oral storytelling tradition, as well as episodes from ancient Mediterranean epics, such as 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' and Homer's 'Iliad.'

Anecdotes, fables, fairy tales, and parables are all examples of the oral storytelling tradition that helped to shape the short story, such as 'The Painting of the Dog and His Reflection' from 'Aesop's Fables'. In fact, 'Aesop's Fables,' first collected in the 4th century B.C., may have been the first anthology of short stories in Western literature.

Over time, genres and writers all around the world have influenced the development of the short story. For example, Norse legends, Irish ballads, and Gothic ghost stories have all played a major role in directing both its structure and subject matter. Let's take a look at some of the major characteristics of the short story.

Characteristics

Length: Short stories typically range from 1,600 to 20,000 words.

Although authors and critics have debated the length of the short story throughout literary history, most agree on a minimum of 1,600 and a maximum of 20,000 words. In his own contribution to the debate, Edgar Allen Poe suggested that a short story should take 30 minutes to two hours to read.

Subject: Short stories usually focus on a single subject or theme.

Subjects or themes may range from something as mundane as a daily errand or as thrilling as a ghost tale. A single, easily contained plot is one of the hallmarks of the short story and helps shape its other characteristics.

'In medias res': Short stories usually take place in a single setting and begin 'in medias res', which means 'into the middle of things' in Latin.

In general, short stories tend to begin and end abruptly, with little to no prior information and no major lapses in time. As they involve just one plot line and are limited in word length, there is little room or need for the extended developments we frequently find in novels.

Limited number of characters: Due to the limitations of the genre, short stories typically focus on just one or a couple characters.

As short stories usually cover such brief periods of time, even a single character may never be fully developed. However, historical examples, like some of Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales,' may find interesting ways of involving many different people, as we'll discuss next.

Examples

'Canterbury Tales'

Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' may very well be the first collection of short stories in English literature. Composed in Middle-English verse or prose and written in the early 14th century, Chaucer's collection revolves around a storytelling contest among pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'

'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' a ghoulish account of a headless horseman and an ambitious, superstitious schoolmaster, was published by Washington Irving in 1820. Adapted from a German folktale, the story owes much of its style and form to the Gothic horror tradition found in the German novellen, or little novels, of the 18th century.

'The Overcoat'

The Russian form of the short story, or povest, helped revolutionize the genre worldwide. Written by Nikolai Gogol in 1842, 'The Overcoat' concerns a poor clerk, whose successful efforts to buy a new winter coat eventually lead to the loss of a costly possession and his death. In its celebration of remarkably ordinary people, places, and things, as well as its contribution to literary realism, 'The Overcoat' stands out in the history of the short story. In fact, Gogol's work was so influential that his fellow Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, once claimed that, 'We have all come out from under his overcoat.'

'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County'

'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County,' based on an ancient Greek myth about a frog-jumping contest, was published by Mark Twain in 1867. As the author's first critical success, it also serves an example of a tall tale, or an outlandishly improbable short story. Tall tales, along with their counterpart the 'western,' were wildly popular on the American frontier from the mid-19th to late-19th century.

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