Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 10 April 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Short story as a literary genre

In this week's column, I intend to explore the short story as a literary genre. Among the reasons that prompted me to venture into the theme is the appalling knowledge gap on the part of some of the Sri Lankan writers in English on diverse literary genres in general and on the short story in particular.

In essence, the short story is a literary genre which presents a single significant event or a scene involving a limited number of characters. Unlike in a novel, characters in a short story are not developed to their logical conclusions. The genre demands economy of settings and precise narrations. Characters in a short story are often revealed in an action or through a dramatic situation. One of the important aspects of the short story is that it focuses on a creation of a mood rather than narration of a story. A short story may be defined as short prose fiction, having a few characters and aiming at unity of effect.

Although there were previous attempts at short story writing, it was in the 19th century that the short story emerged as a distinct literary genre in literary works by writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Kleist, Edgar Allan Poe, Prosper Mérimée, Guy de Maupassant, and Anton Chekhov.

The short story is more focused on a slice of life of a character than as they are portrayed in a novella or novel. The length of the short story varies from writer to writer. The rudimentary form of the early short story can be found in oral story-telling traditions and the prose anecdotes. However, unlike in a novel, the short story is noted for its focused nature and its swift narrative style with pre-conceived ending. Often the ending could be abrupt and inconclusive.

Salient characteristics

One of the principal characteristics of the short story is that it is less complex than the protagonists appearing in a novel. If a novel portrays life or some instances, entire generations with a host of characters, the short story contains a limited number of characters focusing on a single incident, thought

process, setting and portrays a limited span of time.

In a novel, the story tends to make up of certain cardinal elements in a dramatic framework; exposition (introduction of the setting, plot, and main characters), conflict, intensifying action, crisis, climax, resolution and moral. However, this order may change from one fiction to another depending on the author and his or her intention. In a novel such as War and Peace there are several sub-plots within the master plot involving a large number of complex characters.

The short story may not replicate this pattern and in fact, there are short stories which follow no pattern at all. For instance, in modern short stories, there is a tendency to make an abrupt start often from a middle of action and then the narration swiftly directs toward a specific ending.


The origin of the short story can be traced back to the oral story-telling tradition. Perhaps, the oldest form of short story is the anecdote which was popular in the Roman Empire. At the time, the anecdote functioned as a kind of parables in the Roman Empire.

By the early 14th century, the story-telling tradition began to evolve into written stories. One of the important literary productions in that era was Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Significantly, both of these books constitute of individual short stories ranging from farce, humorous anecdotes to well-crafted fictions.

Modern short story

Early short stories include works such as Brothers Grimm's Fairy Tales (1824-26) and Nikolai Gogol's Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831-32), Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle (1819), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of the Grotesque, Arabesque (1840) and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842).

The phenomenal growth of newspapers and journals in the latter part of the 19th century created a heavy demand for short fiction in the range of 15,000 to 30,000 words. Some of the famous short stories of this era include Boleslaw Purus's A Legend of Old Egypt (1888) and Anton Chekhov's Ward No. 6 (1892).

This era in the evolution of the short story was marked by the growth of literary theories regarding the short story. Among the noteworthy theoretical discourses were presented in Edgar Allan Poe's The Philosophy of Composition (1846). In 1884, Brander Matthews, the first American professor of dramatic literature, published The Philosophy of the Short-Story.

It was Mathews who a year later, named the new literary genre "Short Story". High-profile magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker Scribner's and The Saturday Evening Post published short stories in each issue in the early 20th century.

"The short-story is the single effect, complete and self-contained, while the novel is of necessity broken into a series of episodes. Thus the short-story has, what the novel cannot have, the effect of "totality," as Poe called it, the unity of impression. Of a truth, the short-story is not a chapter out of a novel, or an incident or an episode extracted from a longer tale, but at its best impresses the reader with the belief that it would be spoiled if it were made larger, or if it were incorporated into a more elaborate work. ... In fact, it may be said that no one has ever succeeded as a writer of Short- stories who had not ingenuity, originality, and compression ; and that most of those who have succeeded in this line had also the touch of fantasy" - The Philosophy of Short Story.

Sri Lankan writers of short stories

Given the evolution of modern short story, what is obvious from the contemporary writers of short story and to a greater extent novelists, is that most of them are either ill-informed or totally ignorant of the literary the genres of short story and novel. Unfortunately, for them, still the short story is a short fiction and long fiction is a novel. In the final analysis, it is the poverty of philosophy which led them to demonstrate anecdotes and standard yarns as short stories.



ANCL Tender - Saddle Stitcher
Donate Now |
LANKAPUVATH - National News Agency of Sri Lanka
Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL)

| News | Editorial | Finance | Features | Political | Security | Sports | Spectrum | Montage | Impact | World | Obituaries | Junior | Magazine |


Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2011 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

Comments and suggestions to : Web Editor