Exploring the art of prose


What is a Short Story?

For Short Story Month, we asked: What, exactly, is a short story? How is different from the novel? How can a definition help you to construct a piece, help you to decide whether your fiction is short or long?

We’ve collected some definitions from writers. See which ones speak to you.

“If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.”

William Trevor, The Art of Fiction, No, 108, The Paris Review

“My stories and my poems are both short. (Laughs.) I write them the same way, and I’d say the effects are similar. There’s a compression of language, of emotion, that isn’t to be found in the novel. The short story and the poem, I’ve often said, are closer to each other than the short story and the novel.”

Raymond Carver, Two Interviews with Raymond Carver

“The short story needs to get to the point or the question of the point or the question of its several points and then flip things upside down. It makes skepticism into an art form. It has a deeper but narrower mission than longer narratives, one that requires drilling down rather than lighting out. Like poetry, it takes care with every line. Like a play, it moves in a deliberate fashion, scene by scene. Although a story may want to be pungent and real and sizzling, still there should be as little fat as possible.”

Lorris Moore, Why We Read (and Write) Short Stories

“Perhaps the central question to be considered in any discussion of the short story is what do we mean by short. Being short does not mean being slight. A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning…A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statement about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.”

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

 “Something happens, however slight it may be—and it isn’t something that happened over and over before and is going to happen again and again in the future. It is assumed that the events of a story take place only once, that whatever “happens” to the character as a result of the action of the story alters or “moves” him in such a way, again however slight it may be, that he would never experience or do the same thing in exactly the same way.”

Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular

“In a story that’s complete, enough happens—however slight the incidents may be—that we don’t know the end and want to know the end. There is enough new incident not necessarily to change a character (some people never change) but to change the reader: we start someplace, go a distance, and return, or go a distance and arrive. Sometimes the character changes, but in a complete story the reader always changes—if only changing position: we lean back, saying, “Ahhh.” Or we sit up straight near the end, realize we were wrong, and relax again. Or we sag in our chairs, a little bored, thinking we see what the author is up to—and then sit up with a jerk. We go through something.”

Alice Mattison, The Kite and the String

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

Alice Munro, Selected Stories

 “Both a novel and a story are maps of life, of course, and distort the world by amplifying selected details. The novel’s ambition is to create a world from the ground up, while a story grinds the earth down to its atoms. The world of the novel is a moon, a satellite, of the one we inhabit. The world of the story is an impulse, scrambled pixels, bounced over the horizon, sorting themselves out on the screen of the retina.

Novels murder and create. Stories are the scenes of crimes.”

Michael Martone, “Ruining a Story”

“In short stories, I don’t think characters or their situation or their surrounding change as frequently as they turn.”

Meg Wolitzer, The Best American Short Stories 2017

by Laura Spence-Ash