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.

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