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The Short Story

Definition--Two Types--Dramatic Short Story--Atmospheric
Short Story--Origins--Assumed Unity and Singleness of Effect
of Dramatic Short Story--General Technique of Form--
Characterization--Interest and Too Great Simplicity--
Limitation upon Complexity--Length--Coherence of Form--

A story is a fiction with a plot, as distinguished from a tale, which is
a string of incidents that happened to happen to the characters. In the
story the events are linked together by the natures of the people
concerned; personality influences event and event influences
personality. And the short story is, simply, a short story, a fiction,
possessing a plot, that could be and has been told adequately within
brief limits. A plot is a dramatic problem. Therefore the short story
may be defined roughly as a story embodying a dramatic problem which can
be stated and worked out adequately as to all its elements of
personality, event, and setting within relatively brief limits.

The general nature of the short story having been stated, it is
necessary to qualify and distinguish. Fiction is concerned primarily
with the intrinsic interest and significance of man and his acts, the
elements of drama, but there are three fundamental types of story, two
of which are normal and the other abnormal. The types are the story
stressing personality and the story stressing incident, which are
normal, and the story stressing atmosphere, which is abnormal in that
persons and events are subordinate to the emotional value of the whole
for a reader, which is usually determined by the setting. Personality is
the most prominent element of the story of character, and the events are
the most prominent element of the story of complication; each story
stresses one of the twin elements of drama, the persons and their acts;
and each story possesses both of such elements. That is, both the story
of character and the strict story of plot--plot as a mere sequence of
events--have some dramatic value. But the strict story of atmosphere has
no dramatic value; its nature forbids that it should. The emotional
effect is usually determined by the setting, and the human traits that
will intensify a setting--and with which the characters must be
invested--are not such as to give rise to a dramatic opposition between
the persons. The definition of the short story as a story embodying a
dramatic problem which can be presented adequately within brief limits
does not cover the short story of atmosphere.

In other words, there are two types of short story, apart from the three
types determined by the placing of emphasis upon any one of the three
fictional elements of personality, event, and setting--the dramatic
short story and the short story of unity of effect. The dramatic short
story is either the story of character or the story of complication of
incident; the short story of unity of effect is the story of atmosphere.
The two types here contrasted--the dramatic story and the atmospheric
story--could not be covered adequately or to any purpose by a single
definition; they are radically different. In defining the short story I
have defined merely the dramatic short story, and in discussing it I
shall confine myself largely to the dramatic short story likewise, for
the story of atmosphere has been considered elsewhere.

Knowledge of the origin of the two basic types of short story, the
dramatic story and the atmospheric story, will clarify the writer's
conceptions of the types. The story of atmosphere, or story of totality
of emotional effect on a reader, was first consciously perfected by Poe,
wherein lies America's single claim to having originated a distinct
literary type. By following in prose his poetic philosophy--as stated in
"The Philosophy of Composition"--Poe produced such stories as "Ligeia"
and "The Fall of the House of Usher," which have little or no real
dramatic value, yet which are certainly not mere tales, for they have
plot- or story-value. As I have stated, in the case of the story of
atmosphere, such as these two of Poe's, the climactic ascension of the
particular emotional impression to the point of highest intensity
supplies much of the plot-or story-element of the fiction.

On the other hand, the dramatic short story, embodying a true plot, may
be said to have originated in France. The type was suggested by Poe's
work; the mere mechanical hint, that of a brief story, was received
eagerly by French writers, and the dramatic element, entirely altering
the fundamental character of the fiction, was speedily injected. The
result has been that the offshoot has entirely overshadowed the parent
stem, and this simply because there is so much more material for the
dramatic story than there is for the story of unity of emotional effect.
The story of atmosphere is most difficult to do well, so that relatively
few are published; it has no wide popular appeal, with the same result;
while the range of emotional effects is narrow that may be produced on a
reader by a work of fiction, that is, there is less material for the
story of atmosphere than for the dramatic story.

It is time now to notice a matter concerning which much glib statement
has been made, the "unity" and singleness of effect of the short story.
The usual remark of the writer or talker on short story technique is
that the ideal or typical short story will manifest the dramatic unities
of time, place, and action, and will produce a single effect. But it is
notorious that only relatively few stories do manifest the dramatic
unities, so the speaker or writer goes on to say most lamely and
indefinitely that the laws of technique must give way to the
requirements of any particular story. Grant me for the moment that the
dramatic unities are not essential to the perfect short story, that
Maupassant's "The Necklace" is as technically perfect a short story as
Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," and the viciousness of preaching thus
to the short story writer becomes apparent. The only definite thing he
is told, that the unities are essential to the perfect short story, is

The vice of such statement originates in failure to distinguish between
the two types of short story, the story of atmosphere and the dramatic
story. The story of atmosphere, of totality or unity of emotional effect
on a reader, can hardly escape manifesting the dramatic unities of
place, time, and action. The emotional effect will usually be that of a
single definite place, for reasons brought out in the preceding chapter;
the time will be brief, on account of the inherent difficulty to sustain
the atmosphere; and there will be little complication or prolongation of
the action, for the same reason. But the dramatic short story is not
subject to the limitations imposed by the necessity always to regard
atmosphere, or emotional effect, and it may or may not manifest the
dramatic unities.

The way to state the relation between the matter of unity and the
dramatic short story, the short story of true plot, is this: on account
of the limited space available, the plot for a dramatic short story will
tend to involve relatively few shifts of setting, relatively short
spaces of time, relatively few and relatively simple events, and
relatively few persons. No other sort of plot can be adequately handled
within narrow word limits. The short story must be written with verbal
fullness and elaboration, that its phrasing may not be bare and unlike
the shaded contours of life, and the plot complicated as to any one of
its three elements of personality, setting, and event cannot be
adequately developed in a few thousand words. The short story is the
result of just conception and selection, rather than of mere rhetorical
compression. Stevenson's "Markheim," for instance, is written more
elaborately than almost any other episode in fiction, long or short,
that is, any other episode of equal length in point of the time it would
take to happen in actuality.

Poe was the first writer to say much of anything definite about his art,
and commentators on technique who have followed him have merely expanded
his thesis rather than said something new. The only trouble, in relation
to the short story, is that Poe spoke of unity and singleness of effect
with his own peculiar type of short story in mind, the short story of
unity or totality of emotional effect, the short story of atmosphere.
When he stated that the short story--his type of short story, the short
story of atmosphere--should possess unity and produce a single effect,
he stated the truth, but when it is stated that the short story meaning
both the story of atmosphere and the dramatic short story--should
manifest the unities and produce a single effect, the statement is
false. In the first place, the dramatic short story is not the result of
the same technique as the story of atmosphere; in the second place, the
unity stated by Poe to be essential to the story of emotional effect is
not the same thing as the old dramatic unities, which are mechanical.
The fact that the story of atmosphere can hardly escape manifesting the
dramatic unities does not amalgamate the two matters. Poe's unity is
unity of emotional effect: the dramatic unities are singleness of time,
place, and action, a matter that can be preserved by anyone, though
usually at the expense of the interest of the story. How few have
written and can write so as to produce a unity of emotional effect need
only be suggested to enforce my point.

The matter would not be worth treating thus minutely were it not for the
strong tendency to mislead of any statement that the short story must
manifest the dramatic unities. Within very elastic limits, the unities
are a convention of the drama, but they are not a convention of fiction,
long or short. The art of the stage and the art of the story differ
radically; the advantage given the play by the conciseness of its
spectacle is compensated by the advantage given the story by its more
inclusive character and greater flexibility. I have said that a plot or
story of plot is a dramatic problem, and the word "dramatic" has
connotations of the stage, but what was meant was that a plot is a
conflict between persons, within a single person, or with nature. It was
not meant that a plot or story of plot is subject to the conventions of
the stage. The art of fiction is infinitely more inclusive and flexible
than the art of the stage, and the writer of fiction must utilize to the
full the advantages of his art in order to compensate his work in the
eyes of a reader for its weakness--relative to the play--in vividness
and body.

One may say that the spectacle of life is infinitely various, so that
the writer of fiction has plenty of material for stories at hand. But
life, despite the efforts of Mrs. Grundy, is subject to no conventions,
social, moral, or artistic, and the short story writer who brings all
his ideas to the dramatic unities as a first test will winnow little
grain from the chaff. When the short story writer finds a hint for a
story he should consider whether he can bring out with his few thousand
words all the matters necessary to the fiction's having full effect on a
reader, but the less he frets about any abstract unity or singleness of
effect the better. The words have a plausible sound in discussion, but
they mean nothing, except in relation to the story of atmosphere. It
means something to say that the dramatic short story should possess
unity of tone; it means something to say that it should possess unity of
style; but it means nothing to say that it should possess unity, simply,
unless the dramatic unities are meant, and in that case the statement is
false. Some short stories happen to possess the dramatic unities; more
do not.

By the very nature of the conceptive process the writer seizes his story
ideas in terms of persons, events, or atmosphere. And when he has a
definite story idea he first should develop it so as to give it maximum
effect, and then should consider whether he must write a short story or
novel or romance to give his developed idea adequate expression. The
writer who starts with some abstract knowledge of fiction technique, and
seeks to vivify rules of construction into a definite story, will
accomplish very little. Good stories are not conceived that way, and
good writers do not go to work that way. The story is the thing, and it
does not lie between the covers of this or any other book on technique.
It lies in the people and events the writer sees in reality or in
imagination, and to find it the writer must turn to life or to his
dreams. After the story is found the writer's knowledge of and facility
in technique will come into play in the work of development and

The broad outlines of the technique of the dramatic short story were
implied in the statement that it will tend to involve relatively few
shifts of setting, relatively short spaces of time, relatively few and
relatively simple events, and relatively few persons. Its unity of
tone--which is characteristic of the short story, dramatic and of
atmosphere--results from its simplicity as to persons, events, and
setting, and its unity of style results from its unity of tone. The
elements of the short story are less complex than those of a longer
fiction, and the fact causes all the modifications in the general
technique of fiction as manifested by the short story. In the short
story, for instance, there is less opportunity than in the novel to
manage secondary events to build up character or personality. The whole
process must be swifter, and the writer must depend largely on direct
statement and description.

This matter is of some importance. As to setting, the technique of the
short story and of the novel are identical; there is merely less setting
in the short story--speaking quantitatively--because the type involves
fewer shifts of place, even if the action does not happen in one place.
And the technique of the short story and of the novel are identical as
to action; the short story merely involves fewer episodes. But as to the
people, the technique of the short story and of the novel differ. It is
true that the short story involves few persons, relatively to the novel,
just as it involves relatively few shifts of setting and relatively few
events, but the difference is more than quantitative, and so affects the
technique of the type. It affects the technique of the short story
because characterization is a matter achieved by showing the person in
action, by describing him, by transcribing his speech, and by stating
his qualities directly. That is to say, characterization goes on in
every part of the story, except where setting is being touched in. And
it will go on there, to a slight extent, if the environment is given in
terms of the impressions received by the character affected. On the
other hand, narration, or verbal treatment of the event, and the
description of setting, or verbal treatment of the environment, are more
or less distinct and separate elements of a story. The matter is
delicate, and I run some risk of being obscure here, but the net result
of the simplicity and separateness of both the narrative and the
descriptive process is that the narrative and descriptive technique of
the short story is the narrative and descriptive technique of fiction
generally. Writer of novel and writer of short story can narrate a
murder in much the same way, or touch in a countryside with identical
technique, but they cannot handle their people similarly.

Perhaps the point can be made clearer. The writer of a novel and the
writer of a short story alike must invest their people with the
vivacity, distinction, and concreteness of real men and women, but where
the one has five hundred pages, let us say, the other has only five
thousand words. It is a task difficult enough at best to precipitate a
man in a few drops of ink. It is also difficult to narrate the man's
actions with some of the vividness of reality, or to touch in a real
world for him to move in. But note this. Where the novelist must deal
with a large number of events and scenes, the short story writer has
only a few to handle; he has about as many words available for each of
his few as the novelist has for his many. That is not the case in
creating characters. The process of characterization must permeate any
fiction, forwarded by the narrative matter, the dialogue, the
expository matter, and the descriptive matter alike. And the novelist
has five hundred pages to initiate, reinforce, and complete the illusion
of personality where the short story writer has but five thousand words.
The novelist has more people to vivify, it is true, but not enough more
than the short story writer to give the latter an equal chance if he
follows the same technique.

It all comes down to this: a story, long or short, can be broken up into
its several episodes and scenes, which are mechanically separable, but
its people move through the whole. Since any event or any scene is in a
sense a mere item of a story, not universally influential, the technique
of handling event or scene simply as such is much the same, whatever the
type of story. But since the element of personality is universally
present and influential in a story, the technique of characterization
varies with the essential nature of the story as a whole.

The result of the condition upon the general technique of
characterization as applied in the short story must now be stated.

I have said already that the whole process must be swifter, but that is
not very definite. Expanded, the statement amounts to saying that the
short story writer cannot develop personality with the fullness and
diversity of the novelist; he must concentrate his verbal resources upon
the trait developed by the few events of the story and upon a few
striking peculiarities of appearance and speech. As to the strict trait
of character, the story itself will point the way. It will have one main
situation, and probably that one will be of such a nature as to involve
relatively simple attributes of soul in the persons concerned. As to the
more superficial matter of making the persons seem real and lifelike,
the writer must describe sharply, rather than at length--as Stevenson
did in "A Lodging for the Night"--and must make his people talk as
individually as possible. The general aim, of course, is the same as in
the longer story, to present real characters of unique appearance and
speech. And the writer's resources--again of course--are the same, but
the brevity of the short story forces him to concentrate upon one matter
of soul, one matter--or at most a few--of appearance, and one matter of
speech. The whole art of fiction is selective; even the novel cannot
present justly the complete man; and the short story, simply because it
is short, is the most highly selective fiction of all. It cannot present
the whole man, but it must seem to. A reader will not feel the absence
of traits not involved in the events, and by vivid and brief descriptive
touches, reinforced by unique speech, any character can be invested with
what will be accepted as a complete physical presence.

As stated, the story itself, if a true story and not a tale, will show
its writer that his expository matter or direct statement as to
character must bear only upon the traits involved in the plot-situation
of the story. The necessity is not peculiar to the short story, but it
is more insistent than in the case of the novel. The other points of the
technique of characterizing in the short story are purely verbal, and
the writer's success depends upon his faculty in pungent description and
in handling speech.

The remainder of the technique of the short story, apart from the matter
of creating real men and women, is not verbal, but constructive, and is
implied in--as it results from--the brevity of the fiction. Unlike the
novelist, the writer of the short story has space for nothing but the
story. He cannot drag in by the heels episodes unessential to the story
solely for the sake of their intrinsic interest; he cannot waste words
upon unessential persons. He is faced by two facts--that his story must
be interesting, so that it will probably have to involve considerable
complication as to persons, events, and setting, and that it must be
told with enough verbal fullness and elaboration to give it the body and
seeming of life. Trimming between the necessity to interest and the
necessity to invest his story with reality, the writer first must find
an interesting story, and then, in writing, or in developing and
writing, must be vigilant to transcribe nothing unessential to the
story, or he will be forced to exceed his space-limit.

The process comprehends most of the technique of the short story. The
whole difference between it and the novel is that the novel is more
discursive. Much of the novel's interest, quite permissibly, may inhere
in persons, episodes, and matter generally without relation to the main
thread of the story. But a short story's interest may not inhere in
matter foreign to the thread of the story. That is the case not because
of any arbitrary requirement that it be a "unity," but simply because a
short story cannot be told adequately as to the story without exceeding
the word-limit if unessential matter be incorporated with it.

The fallacy, whether on the part of commentator on technique or writer
of fiction, in approaching the short story as some sort of artificial
fictional unity lies in the implicit disregard of the necessity to
interest. The first necessity is that a story interest, and to meet it
the writer must devise some complication of persons, motives, and
events, and usually that will involve some diversity of setting, or
change of place. The second necessity is that the story be told so as to
create the illusion of reality, and to meet it the writer will be forced
to exhaust his few thousand words. The necessity that the story interest
can be met only rarely without violating the unities of the drama;
therefore they are not a convention of the art of the short story. Apart
from the matter of unity of tone and style, the short story is a unity
only in that it is one single story, nothing more, nothing less. That
is, each word is essential to the fiction as such. But that does not
mean that the story or plot is a unity in itself. It may involve much
diversity in the three fictional elements of personality, event, and
setting, the last of which includes time.

I emphasize the matter because the beginning writer is apt to devise
stories too simple to present a real problem to awaken a reader's
interest. There is also the converse fault, of course, that of devising
a story too complicated to be given adequate expression in few words,
but this fault will tend to correct itself through the difficulties the
writer will meet in execution. The other will not tend to correct
itself. The more simple the story, the easier it will be to write with
some approach to adequacy. The writer who fancies that a short story
must involve as little as possible diversity of people, events, and
places may very well continue to devise stories too simple to awaken
interest, however effectively they may be told. He will have no trouble
in writing each one within his space, but he will have trouble in
getting them published, for each will be lacking in essential fictional
value, the capacity to interest. Here I can make only general statement,
and it is impracticable to dwell on the fact that real and highly
individualized characters will invest a simple story with all the
interest of a more complicated fiction. The general truth, however, is
that the interest of a tale lies in the problem it presents and solves,
that a problem involves complication and diversity, and that a writer
may go astray who seeks only the dramatically unified and simple plot.
His work will interest a reader if he creates real people, but the
capacity to do so is a rare faculty. At the bottom of it, a story, long
or short, is a sequence of events; they should not be too simple, for,
apart from the human element, simplicity presents no problem to awaken a
reader's interest.

The sole limitation upon the complexity and diversity of the short story
as a whole is the difficulty to develop in few words a plot complicated
as to personality, event, place, or time. Accordingly, the plot suitable
for a short story will tend to be simple, but it need not be so simple
that the events, apart from the people, will not awaken interest.
Moreover, the unskilled writer who has experienced the difficulty to
develop an interesting plot in few words will be astonished by the
results of a little forethought and careful planning before writing.
Elimination and suppression of inessential and relatively unimportant
matters will enable him to set forth adequately, though in a few words,
a story of real body and interest.

The whole discussion should awaken realization of the fact that the
short story is the most difficult form of prose fiction. To the general
difficulty of all fiction it adds the difficulty that whatever is done
must be done in a few words. The writer of novel or romance has only to
interest, and his space is practically unlimited. The short story writer
must interest, and he must interest in few words and pages. He must
depend solely on his story; he has space for nothing else. He should
remember that each item of unessential matter given place by him will
lessen by just so much the number of words available to give the real
story verisimilitude and consequent interest and appeal. To take the
conceptive aspect of it, in devising a short story he should remember
that inclusion of any accidental and unessential matter must lessen by
just so much his power to awaken interest by some diversity and
complication in the real story.

When a story idea is found, the writer should determine precisely what
matters must be brought out if the fiction is to have full effect on a
reader, who will have only the writer's words to go on. The writer
should realize precisely what elements of personality are significant in
relation to the main situation, which is the story in little, and should
prepare to develop the motives and traits involved. He should determine
precisely what will be the most effective physical movement for the
story, the nature and order of events, also the setting or environment.
He should consider the essential nature of the main situation, or
climax, and, if he cannot manage that preceding events shall prepare a
reader for it, he should prepare from the beginning of the story to hint
what is to come, as Stevenson does in "Markheim." Finally, he should
grasp the developed story as a whole, and be vigilant to transcribe
nothing unessential, for if the story is real fictional knot or problem,
and worth while, he cannot do so without sacrificing essential matter or
exceeding his limits.

The physical brevity of the short story certainly has great influence in
the direction of simplicity. But its brevity does not subject the
dramatic short story to the conventions of the stage. It must be a
unity, so-called, but only in this, that every word must be necessary to
develop the story-idea, which, in itself, may be simple or somewhat
complex. The short story of atmosphere is another matter.

Coherence is a word much better than unity to express the most
significant attribute of the dramatic short story. The form is coherent
in that every word, line, and sentence has relation to the story itself.
The novel is relatively incoherent in that it often embodies whole
stories without relation to the main story, or matter without relation
to any story at all. The most pungent way to put the point of the whole
discussion is to state that the short story, viewed merely as a sequence
of words, is coherent in that each word serves to forward a single
story-idea to its conclusion. That is not to state that the story-idea
itself is coherent or a unity. It is a unity in that it is single, one
story, but the one story need not manifest unity of time, place, and
action. The sooner the short story writer clears his head of any notion
that the verbal coherence of the dramatic short story involves some
indefinable unity in its matter or story-idea, or some equally
indefinable singleness of effect, the better for him, his work and

There would be no great profit in summarizing here the items of
technique treated in other chapters. All are of use in the short story,
functioning as in other forms of prose fiction. Apart from the matter of
characterization, the peculiar technique of the short story is
constructive and supervisory, rather than executive. The writer must
make certain that he has one story and nothing else, for only one story
can be adequately developed within brief limits. In writing, he must
take care to transcribe only story-matter, for the same reason. But in
narrating an event, or in describing a setting, after he has determined
that event and setting are essential to his single story, the writer may
employ the technique of general narrative or descriptive writing.
Whatever the form of fiction, its aim is the same, to show real men and
women doing in a real world the things one might expect from their
natures and the circumstances of their lives.

In the chapter on story types something was said as to the current
insistence upon the verbal compression of the short story. As stated
there, the short story, dramatic or atmospheric, is not the result of
mere rhetorical compression, rather of the inherent brevity of the
conception. The executive technique of long story and short are
identical, except as to the single matter of characterization. The short
story develops its fewer episodes with as much rhetorical elaboration as
the novel develops its many, and the writer who conceives that a short
story can be produced by verbal paring and filing is on the highroad to


[Q] The root cause of all the unintelligent discussion of the short
story's unity in books on technique is failure to distinguish between
form and content. The mere fact that no word without relation to the
story-idea can be transcribed does not mean that the story-idea--complex
of people, events, and settings--is a unity. The short story is a unit
in that it is one story, rather than two or ten, but--it is not
impertinent to ask--what of it? A single story may involve great
diversity and complication of elements. And it is what is known as a
short story if it can be presented adequately within some few thousand
words, though it begin in a king's palace with tragedy and end in
laughter in a Harlem flat. Poe's type of short story is another matter;
it does possess unity of content in that setting, personality, and
events are subtly alike.

Next: The Novel

Previous: Atmosphere

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