The Elusive Notion: Short Story
By Amy Lynn Asbury
What is a short story?
That’s easy, you might answer. A short story is obviously a story that’s short. But such a concise definition can only lead us to more questions—how short can the story be? What if it’s just a paragraph? What if it’s the oft-cited, and possibly apocryphal, six-word story by Hemingway—
For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.
Powerful in its sadness. Or the even-shorter, five-word spoof, by Ben Parris—
For sale: manuscript. Never sold.
Quite a few famous writers have debated the definition of a short story, because there has never been one set definition. Sure, if you look it up in the dictionary you’ll find one, but it’ll be along the lines of our original answer.
If we shop elsewhere for our definition, it would be fitting to draw it from the writers themselves. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in an essay that a short story is a story that can be read in one sitting that has a single effect. Single effect means that every word and every action in a story must point to one ultimate theme, or at least one end. That’s a pretty decent definition, until you wonder just how much someone could read in one sitting. One person might only be able to read twenty pages, while another might be able to read eighty.
Anton Chekov also wrote his own definition of a short story. He stated that short stories are primarily about two lead characters and no one else, and that the ideas must be simple. We might be able to agree that short stories should have a smaller cast than novels or even novellas, but just two lead characters? That might be a little restrictive, even for Chekov himself.
Stephen King famously said, “A short story is a different thing altogether—a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” Here he means that short stories are startling and swift, with perhaps a hint of intimacy, but without getting properly acquainted with the subject matter. Since this is a pretty vague definition and therefore inclusive, it’s one of my favorites.
My favorite attempt at a short story definition, however, comes from Michael Martone: “Where a novel is a forest fire, the [short] story is rust,” he wrote. So many things happen in a novel—there’s so much plot and so many themes, so many ups and downs. But in a short story, we get an effect. Sure, events take place during a short story, but, as Poe said, there is one effect. We see one side of events, or just the lingering remains.
I also agree with one author in particular—Francine Prose, who wrote an essay about the fact that there is no definition of a short story. There are too many variables, too many widely-accepted short stories that have a ton of characters or a ton of pages, a ton of plot or no traceable plot at all, for anyone to really define the genre.
Maybe Prose is right, and there is no real definition of the short story genre. Maybe Poe is, and short stories must work toward a single, unified effect. Or maybe none of these writers are right.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with these authors? And do you have your own definition of the short story genre?