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Literature and Writing

Short Story

simple subject, stock characters, short tales, short shorts, inner conflict

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Short Story, fictional work depicting one character’s inner conflict or conflict with others, usually having one thematic focus. Short stories generally produce a single, focused emotional and intellectual response in the reader. Novels, by contrast, usually depict conflicts among many characters developed through a variety of episodes, stimulating a complexity of responses in the reader. The short story form ranges from “short shorts,” which run in length from a sentence to four pages, to novellas that can easily be 100 pages long and exhibit characteristics of both the short story and the novel. Because some works straddle the definitional lines of these three forms of fiction—short story, novella, and novel—the terms should be regarded as approximate rather than absolute.

Distinctions should be made between short tales and the modern short story as it is usually regarded. Short tales go back to the origins of human speech, and some were written down by the Egyptians as long ago as 2000 bc. They usually dramatize a simple subject and theme and emphasize narrative over characterization; the opposite is true of the modern short story, where characterization, mood, style, and language are often more important than the narrative itself. Distinctions should also be made between commercial and literary fiction within the short story genre. From O. Henry to Stephen King, commercial short fiction has traditionally featured predictable plot formulas, stock characters and conflicts, and superficial treatment of themes. Literary short fiction employs complex techniques to depict the often-unresolvable dilemmas of the human predicament.


Madden, David, B.S., M.A.

Donald and Yelvia Crumbley Professor of Creative Writing, Lousiana State University. Author of "A Primer of the Novel", "Revising Fiction" and nine novels.

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