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What is a Short Story?

I was a bit surprised when my short story professor started our first class this semester by asking, “What is a short story?”  We’d just had that discussion about creative nonfiction in my other class, but I thought short stories—having been around longer than creative nonfiction—were more established.  Everyone knows what they are… right?

Well, to start with, what’s short?  Pick up any literary fiction journal and you’ll see that there’s a big variation in the length of a “short” story.  In fact, even Joseph Conrad’s story “Heart of Darkness” is considered “short,” I believe—when it’s not called a novella (but we won’t get into that).

If you want to go really, really short, there’s the 6-word story, started by Hemingway.  He claims that his best story ever was this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  Other short stories include “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.” by Margaret Atwood and “Easy. Just touch the match to” by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Sorry, no examples by yours truly.  It’s harder than it looks.

If six words is too short, you could write a story in six sentences.  This sounded easier to me, especially if you write sentences like Herman Melville.  But some people can write a six-sentence story with normal sentences.  The Six Sentences Blog has a large selection of these stories, perfect for those short on time.  Our prof had us write one for our final exam and encouraged us to submit it, so maybe mine will appear there someday soon.

There’s also the Drabble, a short story of exactly 100 words.  That didn’t sound too bad to me, until I tried writing it.  At 80 words, I’d barely started and realized I’d have to be much more concise.

Flash fiction comes in at 250-2500 words—much more manageable, but still very short.  Despite being short, well-written flash fiction can still pack a huge emotional punch, like “Incarnations of Burned Children.”  (Warning: if you’re a parent, that story is hard to read.  I called it a “nightmare.”)  Still, it seemed over too soon to me.  I like more time to get to know the characters, the place.

Edgar Allen Poe said that a short story should be read in one sitting.  Once upon a time, I could read a novel in one sitting.  Now, I’d better hang out at the Six Sentences Blog.  Novels get read in bits and pieces and are still my preferred type of fiction, but I find it interesting what can be done with words—and how so few can convey so much.

What sort of fiction—long or short—do you prefer?

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4 Comments

  1. Koala Bear Writer December 11, 2010
  2. Brittic December 10, 2010
  3. Emily Hiller December 8, 2010
  4. Karen Lange December 8, 2010

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