Ask me what a short story is. Go on, ask me.

What is a short story?

Stephen Vincent Benét: "Something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime."

A short story is a story or some sort of self-contained narrative told in a short form, usually between 2,000 or 15,000 words (averaging at about 5000), although shorter and longer ones are still considered to be short stories. Longer ones are sometimes called novellas. Some short stories are really really short: 100 word stories called Drabbles originate from the UK science fiction convention "scene" in the 1980's, and Brian Aldiss once held a competition for stories that were exactly 50 words long. Things got a bit silly when an 8 word contest kicked off, with Colin Greenland's masterpiece: "Aliens disguised as typewriters? I never heard such --"

In a short story, one or more characters are introduced (usually), a situation arises (sometimes), and the character reacts or deals with it (in general), wrapping everything up at the end (or not), sometimes with a clever twist (the twist is rapidly becoming enforceable by law). Unless you're Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski, of course - rules are always there to be broken, and if the story is good, then that's all that matters. Stories can be written in the form of letters, a diary, or pretty much anything you can think of *, as long as it works - Isaac Asimov once wrote a story disguised as a chemistry paper, which was so convincing, some people believed it was true. The one thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that a proper definition of a short story is more slippery than a greased-up eel on a wet lino floor.

It's a funny one, really; there's no absolute limit past which a story becomes a novel. 40,000 words, for example, is definitely a novel. 30,000? Novel. 20,000? Short novel, or novella. 19,000? Don't know. It's safe to say that if it's published in a book with other stories, then it's a short story. Or novella. If it's published on its own, then it's a novel. Or novella. Okay, I'm leaping out of this paragraph.

Phew, that's better. Short stories are wonderful. Small, perfectly formed gems, if you have a book of short stories, you can always fit one in before going to sleep. If you're reading a compelling book at night, there's always the compulsion to keep going, to find out what happens next - with a short story, you can finish the whole thing, and toddle off to sleep happily. Now I suppose you'll want to know when it all started, or something.

When did it all start?

Short stories have been around a long time, first existing as oral tales told round the campfire, before making the jump into written form. The first ever short story that we know of was "The Two Brothers", written in Egypt in 1400 B.C. Boccaccio's Decameron, published in 1351, is generally considered to be the first ever short story collection. The book consists of ten tales told over ten days. While other collections appeared here and there (the Canterbury Tales, The Thousand and One Nights, etc), the short story as we know it today didn't really start to take shape until the 19th century, when Grimm's Fairy Tales psychologically damaged a generation of kids, while Edgar Allan Poe took care of the grown-ups.

During the late 19th century they became more popular, as literary magazines and journals started popping up all over the place. Arguably, short stories were most popular in the 1930's, 40's and 50's, thanks to the sudden explosion in the science fiction genre. Magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Weird Tales were all the rage, with writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke churning out the stories constantly.

Things tailed off somewhat towards the end of the 20th century, the market shrank, and people turned towards books, television and the cinema rather than the humble short story. Big names like Stephen King and Harlan Ellison could still earn a living from short stories, but for mere mortals, things weren't as easy.

With the growing acceptance of comics ("graphic novels", if you must), the short story went through another change. The Sandman comic (number 19) featured a story called A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Neil Gaiman with Charles Vess, which won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. This was the first time a comic has won this award. It was also the last - they changed the rules so that a mere comic could never again be accused of literature. Snobs.

Short stories are still published today, but in nowhere near the quantities they used to be. Short fiction or, indeed, any kind of fiction on e2 tends to be treated with the same revulsion as a pool of vomit, or a child molester. This is a sad state of affairs, and I urge you not to just downvote something because it's creative writing - take the time to read it. If you really don't like it, downvote it. But try it first. You might like it. There is some gorgeous writing on this site, you're missing out on a treat. Trust Uncle Ralphy, now.

Are they easy to write?

It's a common misconception that a short story is easier to write than a full length novel. Sure, it's quicker, but not necessarily easier. A short story has to get its point across in a much shorter time, it has to establish character, tone, plot, and wrap things up neatly at the end. Lawrence Block is adamant that he couldn't churn out as many short stories as novels. Mark Twain once said "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one." (Actually, Twain might not have said this, nobody's quite sure. It may have been Blaise Pascal. Or someone. Gritchka says "Mark Twain is a generic term, like Oscar Wilde. All witty things were said by both of them" - and that's good enough for me.)

I'm not going to cover writing stories in this writeup, that's a whoooooole other mess of beans. If you want information though, you would do well to go here. All I will say is this: it is very, very easy to write a bad short story.

I don't have time to read - when's the movie/tv show coming out?

You filthy heathen. I bet when you do read, you're one of those people who skip to the end first to see what's going to happen, aren't you? Those people should be shot, they really should. But I digress.

Due to the nature of the short story, television has made the most out of them. The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits brought short stories (and science fiction) into primetime television-land. The original Zone ran from 1959 to 1965, with a new series from 1985 to 1988. The new new version, with Forest Whitaker as the host, is either in the pilot stage or has died or is a series, depending on how the execs are feeling today. The Outer Limits ran from 1963 to 1965, with a new series that started in 1995 and as far as I know is still going at time of writing/typing/noding. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was around from 1955 to 1965, Spielberg's Amazing Stories project ran from 1985 to 1987, the Ray Bradbury Theatre had a limited run in 1985, and the Tales of the Unexpected naked dancing lady enthralled us from 1979 until 1988.

There are plenty of decent films that contain short stories - Asylum (1972), Dead of Night (1945), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), New York Stories (1989), Creepshow (1982), Creepshow 2 (1987), Cat's Eye (1985) - type "stories" or "anthology" into the keyword search tool of the Internet Movie Database, and get renting. If you can't be bothered typing, just copy and paste this link;stories or this one;anthology - although we really should talk about your laziness issues.

If we include films based on short stories, adapted from, or inspired by, then the list gets too big to, er, list. Off the top of my head, the grooviest are: The Thing From Another World (1951)and The Thing (1982), both based on Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), based on the novella by Stephen King, and recently Minority Report (2002), based on the Philip K. Dick story. But dammit, this is about written stories, not movies. Next section, please.

Okay, okay, I'm convinced - so which ones should I read first?

If you haven't read The Monkey's Paw, by W.W. Jacobs, then you should really stop reading this right now and go and read it. It's a creepy tale about a family who are given three wishes, and is a superb example of short story writing. I've linked the title to the story here on e2, so open it in a new window and read it. I'll wait.

Heh heh heh, they've gone, and I lied! I'm not going to wait! Now it's just you and me, alone at last! Any list of the best short stories is purely subjective, of course, and my opinion is merely a blah blah blah, but you can't go wrong with any of these:

The Monkey's Paw - W.W. Jacobs (as mentioned above)
The Nine Billion Names of God - Arthur C. Clarke (any of his short story collections are worth reading) - DON'T read the e2 writeup on this before reading the story, it gives away the damn ending!
Daylight Robbery - Lawrence Block (all of his short stories are pure gold, as are all of his novels, for that matter)
The Last Question, The Bicentennial Man, The Ugly Little Boy - Isaac Asimov (and any of his ones about robots or, in fact, any of his stories)
Mefisto In Onyx, Shatterday - Harlan Ellison (again, if you see anything by this man, buy it at once)
The Green Door, The Gift of the Magi - O. Henry (and anything else by this master of the twist ending)
Dolan's Cadillac, LT's Theory of Pets, The Monkey - Stephen King (yes, Mr Verbal Diarrhoea himself can write short stories, and damn good ones too; pick up all his collections)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - James Thurber (tapocketa-pocketa-pocketa!)
wertperch offers For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
dutchess offers Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (note to Homer Simpson: this will not help you win the lottery)

I can't get enough of short stories, and have devoured them ever since I was old enough to read. My favourites are tales of revenge or just desserts, clever science fiction, horrible things happening to ordinary people, and those ones where some old bloke in a leather armchair tells a mysterious tale of his days in India or Africa when he met a man who wouldn't shake hands - then when the story comes back to the present, you get a nice little sting at the end. But enough of my yakkin - get yourself over to the Classic Short Stories node, and start working your way through them. Oh, and if you click on a story link and the story isn't there, just a description of what happens - Don't Read It! It'll spoil the story, and half the fun is in the telling.

Fascinating. Can I go now?

No. Why do you think I kept you here all this time, telling you about the short story? I wanted you to understand why I was doing this. I desperately needed material, and I thought it would make it more real if I actually did the thing I was writing about. Plus, you deserve it, after what you did. Goodbye, Frank.

I levelled the gun at Frank's stomach, and squeezed the trigger once, twice, three times. The recoil wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but the noise in the tiny, windowless room was incredibly loud, the echo just about covering the whimpering sound Frank was making. The gut-shots didn't kill him straight away. He had a couple of hours of agonising pain left. I smiled at him, winked, and left the room, locking him inside to die. He really shouldn't have screwed my wife. Still, it takes two to tango - but no matter; she'd be joining him soon enough.

The End

See what I did there? I hid a short story inside the structure of the writeup. Okay, it was a bit shit, but technically it works. Ah, whaddya want, blood?

Much info siphoned from these sites:

"A Midsummer Night's Dream", the award winning Neil Gaiman comic/story, was in Sandman number 19, and is available in the third Sandman collection, "Dream Country". It is by no means the best Sandman story, for my money "Dream of a Thousand Cats" (also in this collection) takes that honour hands down. This is a good collection, you also get an original script version of one of the stories. But buy them all, they're gorgeously written and drawn/painted/made out of bits of wood.

Any online or real-world bookshop will have short story collections. Ray Bradbury has two large volumes collecting every story he ever wrote, most science fiction short story authors have collections, all of Stephen King's short stories are now published (Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, and Everything's Eventual for the short stories - and Different Seasons, The Bachman Books, Four Past Midnight and Hearts in Atlantis for the novellas), and every story mentioned here is available in a book or free to read online (a few minutes Googling should sort you out). Second hand bookshops are a goldmine for older, groovier collections too. Now go to it.

* Pretty much like this whole writeup.

I really hope you haven't skipped ahead down here without reading the writeup first. If you did, you go to hell - you go to hell and you die!

Everyone had gone home for the day and the office was quiet. John scanned the desks and the floor, to be certain. Stuck his head quickly in the bathrooms to verify their vacancies. He finally approached Chuck’s desk and was nervous someone would suddenly appear behind him. 

Today, paranoia was his friend and allowed him to continue. 

He took in the details of Chuck’s desk. The Star Wars figures, the Death Star pen holder, the Millennium Falcon air plant, the blue lightsaber pen, the R2-D2 desk mat, and many more indicators of Chuck’s obsession. John had to admit that some of it was cool in the geekiest and best way. 

He considered what he was about to do and questioned the plan he formed earlier that day. Did he really need to know what was in his employee evaluation before Chuck posted it? Would knowing change anything? Uncertainty descended, becoming heartburn in his soul. He felt ill about his motives and what they were urging him to do. 

Why did he worry so much about what people thought of him? He felt weak for caring about their opinions. He admitted to himself he was unsure he could handle knowing his boss’s opinion about him. There was a conviction that any of the feedback would be disheartening. 

He was too complaisant, a people-pleaser, with a perpetual cloud of worthlessness eating away at his self-respect. He thought he hid his insecurities well, radiating cool confidence with an air of self-assurance that wasn’t obnoxious. But at this moment, insecurity ate him whole. It left him wondering if the incredibly anxious 11-year-old inside of him was obvious to everyone and they kindly pretended to not notice his awkwardness. 

His patheticness was exhausting and demoralizing to him. 

He yelled, “Enough!” in his mind and the surroundings returned to focus, reminding him why he was there.

Chuck’s laptop sat closed on the R2-D2 desk pad and looked deceivingly benign. John recently accidentally saw Chuck entering his pin and memorized it. 

He groaned with resignation over his impending actions and opened the laptop to wake it from its sleep. The blue login screen lit up Chuck’s Star Wars fixation that surrounded John.  

Was he sure he wanted to do this? No. However, years of self-doubt compelled him to continue. He logged in and navigated to the folder with the employee evaluations. 

Seeing his name nearly caused a panic attack. There was a vast difference between thinking people couldn’t stand you and knowing the truth, having all your fears confirmed. He trampled over his dread and clicked on his name.

Confusion overwhelmed him. The screen was bright with various neon colors and lettering in the document. His disoriented mind couldn’t grasp what was staring at him in the face. 

Then embarrassment swept over, and his face blazed with shame.  On the screen were these words:

“John, stop worrying! Why are you reading this? You are fine. I promise there will be no surprises. You will know tomorrow. Now, go home and get some sleep. – Chuck”. 

Chuck’s anticipation of John’s appalling actions stunned him. He wondered just how transparent his insecurities were to everyone. But he considered himself lucky to have Chuck as a boss and slowly closed the laptop. The desk area became dim as the laptop went back to sleep.

Glancing around at the desk, and all its fun whimsy, he felt ridiculous and left the office. He decided he would be ok, no matter what happened tomorrow. 


Originally published on Medium.

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