Chief Characteristics of Short Story | Main Features of Short Story


Chief Characteristics of Short Story


Main Features of Short Story

Chief Characteristics of Short Story

Chief Characteristics of Short Story

Chief Characteristics of Short Story

Introduction to Short Story

The Short Story is a fictional short prose narrative based on reality dealing with a single aspect of human life. Of all the branches of literature that have come into being till today, Short Story is of the latest origin. It began to come into being in the second decade of the nineteenth century only.  In America a writer named Washington Irving wrote a story entitled Rip Van Wrinkle in 1819 and Nathaniel Hawthorne, another American writer published some stories in 1832 under the title ‘Twice-Told Tales’. There were some raw features of short story as a branch of literature in their stories but the credit of being the Father of Short Story has gone neither to Washington Irving nor to Nathaniel Hawthorne but to another versatile American writer named Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849). It is because Poe was the first who tried to formulate the short story and practised it as an independent branch of literature.  He defined a short story in 1837 as ‘a prose narrative requiring from half an hour to one or two hours in its perusal.’ In a short story, he gave emphasis on the ‘unity of effect’ and on ‘brevity’ in achieving the effect. With his theory in practice, he devoted himself to writing short stories and got them published in magazines. Being inspired by his theory of short story some other writers came forward and took to producing this genre of literature with enthusiasm.  Among his followers, there were O’Brien (1828-1872), Bret Harte (1836- 1902), O’Henry (1852- 1910), Stephen Crane (1871- 1900) and some others who contributed to the growth of this newly-born child of literature.

Simultaneously, in Russia, a writer named Nikolay Gogol (1809- 1852) began to write stories independently without being gone under any foreign impact. His stories were more realistic and superior to that of Poe. But woe to Gogol that he did not try to formulate his new genre of creation as did Poe. Otherwise, the credit of being the Father of Short Story would have gone to Gogol, not to Poe. Following Gogol, not Poe, some other young Russian writers such as Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Aton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy took to writing even more realistic and successful short stories. It was Anton Chekhov who excelled all others in producing this new genre of literature. He wrote more than two hundred short stories and gave a definite form with subtle technique to it and brought this genre of fictitious prose literature to a glorious perfection.

On the other hand, in France, some writers like Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Kafka, Alphonse Daudet and some others began to practice their hand in the short story almost simultaneously with the Americans and the Russians partly being inspired by the American master Poe and partly by their own intuition. The French short story writers added precision and objectivity to the tradition of writing short stories.  Among the French short storytellers, Guy de Maupassant is the greatest as he has contributed as much as three hundred short stories to the storehouse of world literature. His short sorties are replete with the naked truth of life. Almost all the themes of life as well as all the classes of people as soldiers, peasants, merchants, priests, housewives, prostitutes etc. have gone under the purview of his short stories with fidelity.

Short Story as a particular branch of prose literature entered England very late. It found its way to England only in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the credit for being the importer of this branch of literature to England has gone to Rudyard Kipling, an Indian-born English writer. He had given birth to several collections of short stories among which mention may be made of The Plain Tales from the Hills and The Soldiers. His short stories are based on his personal observation and experience during his stay in India. He got his short stories published in England and since then the tradition of English short stories began. Being inspired by his bold initiative, some English writers come out and begin to practice this form of literature with skill. Among them, mention may be made of  R. L. Stevenson,  Arthur Conan Doyle, Mansfield, Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham and some others. The English short story writers began their careers under the influences of both French and Russian masters. They began to write on a variety of themes. For example —Arthur Conan Doyle wrote on crime themes which are called Detective Stories, H. G. Wells wrote on scientific themes, and Stevenson wrote on social themes. But among the English short storytellers, Somerset Maugham and Arthur Conan Doyle occupy a special place. Both of them show a deep mark of sound intelligence in dealing with their respective themes. But Somerset Maugham may be called the greatest of all English short storytellers as he imparted good humour, wit, satire, objectivity and precision to English short stories. As a short story writer Maugham’s place in England is as same as what is of Anton Chekhov in Russia and of Guy de Maupassant in France. Since the introduction of short story to England, this branch of literature began to be disseminated quickly to the nook and corner of the globe in almost all the major languages. In brief, to say, short story as a new branch of literature took birth in America, got nursed into maturity in Russia, drank the manna of immortal glory in France and received its wide dissemination in England.

It enters India in the twentieth century through the medium of English short stories and produces some best short-tellers as Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Rao, M. R. Anand, R. K. Narayan, Prem Chand and many others.  Among the Indian short-tellers, R. K. Narayan has got a worldwide reputation as a perfect craftsman of this genre of literature.

Component Elements of Short Story

The Short Story from its glorious inception as a peculiar branch of prose literature has been going on to be practised incessantly till today and its production is so huge and varied that it is undoubtedly impossible to arrive at a universal definition. However, a study of some representative short stories of the world shows that there are some Component Elements that are found to be common either much or less to any good short story. They are — Plot, Character, Method of Narration, Structure, Dialogue, Setting, Language and Philosophy of Life. These elements are going to be treated with illustration as below.


The first component element of a short story is Plot. Plot refers to an event or incident in a story.  A short story refers to a story that is short so there is no scope for more than one plot. Unlike the novel, it bears no subplot. It deals with only a single aspect or fragment of life which has within itself a beginning, middle and end. The plot, though short and single, bears a conflict. Conflict happens often between two opposing forces. The conflict may be inward or outward. In an Inward Conflict, the hero or the main character confronts two opposing courses of action or ideas within his mind. In an Outward Conflict, the hero of a story confronts any opposing social situation or circumstance. In brief, to say, the conflict occurs between vice and virtues, darkness and light, life and death and so on which are opposing to each other.  The plot may be fictitious but its root must be dipped in reality. The theme of a short story may be anything of human interest as — love, hatred, jealousy, patriotism, friendship, bravery, cowardice, betrayal, ambition, fraud, generosity etc.  For example, the short story entitled God Sees the Truth But Waits by Leo N. Tolstoy deals with the theme of crime, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah deals with the theme of filial love,  Guy de Maupassant’s  A Pierce of String deals with the theme of jealousy, Lakhminath Bezbaurah’s Patmugi deals with the theme of sufferance of a woman in the male-dominated society, Somerset Maugham’s The Verger deals with the theme of sufferance of a subordinate official under a proud and arbitrary superior official, Alphonse Daudet’s The Last Lesson deals with the theme of Patriotism. On the ground of the Tone   (’s emotional attitude towards his subject matter), a short story may be tragic, comic, tragi-comic, humorous or satiric. For example- the tone of the short story A Prisoner in the Caucasus by Leo N. Tolstoy is tragic, R. K. Narayan’s The Lawley Road is humourous, Nikolay Gogol’s The Cloakis tragi-comic etc.


The second component element of a short story is Character. A short story bears few characters. Its main characters should be one or two and at the most three. There may have some sub-ordinate characters but their number must be few as far as possible.  Like the plot, its characters may be fictitious but they must be based on reality. As a short story is a realistic form of literature, its characters must be human beings living in human society.  It deals with some single aspect of a character and avoids portraying a character in detail because of its limited scope. There may have references of apparitions, ghosts or other spirits but they can never be the main characters. Otherwise, the short story as a form of realistic literature would lose its fidelity. The characters in a short story may get expressed and delineated through objective narration, dialogues (speeches, soliloquies, monologue etc.) and action (deeds).

Method of Narration

The third element of a short story is the Method of Narration. ‘Method’ refers to the particular way of treating, operating or representing a thing. Literally, Method of Narration refers to the particular way of representing any literary art as a whole. There are several literary methods among which mention may be made of — Dramatic Method, Conversational Method, Narrative Method, Soliloquy Method, Dramatic Monologue Method, Figure Method, Autobiographical Method, Pastoral Method and so on. All these methods may broadly be classified as Subjective Methods and Objective Methods. In the Subjective Method, the speaker says whatever he says, in the first person and through this method he generally expresses his own personal experience and outlook toward things and life. In the Objective Method, the speaker treats things objectively, often using the third person, keeping him away from expressing his self (ego). Among much used objective methods, mention may be made of the Dramatic Method and Narrative Method. For example—Alphonse Daudet’s The Last Lesson is written in Subjective Method i.e. the author narrates his story in the first person. The main character named Franz, a schoolboy of Alsace becomes the author’s spokesman and tells his story in the first person.  Ruskin Bond in his short story entitled Once a Thief has employed the Subjective Method with skill. On the other hand, most of the short stories of the world are written in objective narrative Methods. For example — O’Henry’s The Romance of a Busy Broker, Somerset Maugham’s Rain, Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace etc. are some short stories written in this objective method.


The fourth constituent element of a short story is its Structure. It refers to the shaping or organization of the plot in a story.  In the construction of the plot of a good short story, there are five stages — Exposition, Complication, Climax, Falling action and Denouement. These stages are being gone to be illustrated below:

Exposition refers to the beginning or opening stage of a story where the main theme is introduced or hinted at. There are two methods of exposing a short story — Direct Method and Indirect Method or Philosophical Method. In Direct Method, the story is exposed directly or dramatically i.e.suddenly as an accident takes place without any previous warning. For instance, the exposition of the short story Once a Thief by Ruskin Bond may be cited as:

I was still a thief when I met Anil. And though only 15, I was an experienced and fairly successful hand.

Anil was watching a wrestling match when I approached him. He was about 25 a tall, lean fellow and he looked easy-going, kind and simple enough for my purpose. I hadn’t had much luck of late and thought I might be able to get into the young man’s confidence.

“You look a bit of a wrestler yourself”, I said. A little flattery helps in making friends.

“So do you”, he replied, which put me off for a moment because at that time I was rather thin.

 “Well”, I said modestly. “I do wrestle a bit.”

“What is your name?”

“Hari Singh.”I lied. I took a new name every month. That kept me ahead of the police and my former employers.

On the Other hand, in Philosophical Method, the author philosophizes his theme or concerned event at first and then introduces his story. For example, the exposition of the short story by Oscar Wild entitled Ideal Millionaire: A Note of Gratitude is philosophic. In this short story, the author has portrayed how a millionaire assisted a boy who could not earn ten thousand pounds to get his beloved married.

Whatever the Method of Exposition of a short story be, it should excite curiosity in the mind of its readers so that the readers become agile and eager to know the end. A curious exposition of a story enhances the appeal to its enjoyment. For instance, the exposition of the short story entitled The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet may be quoted as:

I started for school very late that morning and was in great dread of a scolding, especially because M. Hamel had said that he would question us on participles, and I did not know the first word about them. For a moment I thought of running away and spending the day out of doors. It was so warm, so bright! The birds were chirping at the edge of the woods, and in the open field back of the sawmill, the Prussian soldiers were drilling. It was so much more tempting than the rule for participles, but I had the strength to resist and hurried off to school.

When I passed the town hall there was a crowd in front of the bulletin board. For the last two years, all our bad news had come from there the lost battle, the draft, the orders of the commanding officers and I thought to myself without stopping: “What can be the matter now?”

The exposition of the story rouses curiosity in the readers’ minds to know the end of what had happened to the schoolboy who went to school late that morning. Besides this, the readers also become eager to know the news that the crowd was reading on the bulletin board.

The second stage of the structure of a short story is Complication. The Complication refers to the stage where the story begins to take shape, the characters begin their actions and the conflict between two opposing forces begins and evolves into a crisis. For illustration, the complication of the story, already referred to (The Last Lesson), begins with the arrival of the boy at his school. Arriving at the school, he noticed that the school was as quiet as Sunday morning, the teacher was wearing a special dress which he usually did not wear and more, he noticed that some village people had come to the school,  all looked sorry.

The third stage of the structure of a short story is the Climax. It refers to the highest point of an event. In this stage, the hero of the story is almost within the reach of his goal or near to receiving the effect of his struggle, or the curiosity or mystery that was hinted at in the exposition gets revealed or begins to be revealed to the readers. The hero or heroine (the main character) cannot come out from what happens in the climax. For example, the stage of climax in the said story reaches when the teacher declares:

My children this is the last lesson I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. The new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French lesson. I want you to be very attentive.”

The next stage of the structure of a short story is the Falling Action. Here the story begins to descend. All the opposing forces begin to submit to the effects of the situation or circumstance. The falling action of the same story begins just after the climax and in this stage, the teacher makes a comment on the French language, explains the causes of the students’ inability to read and write well and there happen other teaching activities of the teacher in the class.

The final stage of the structure of a short story is the Denouement. It refers to the end of the story. Here the hero is required of what he had done or thought. In this final stage, the complication and the climax that had arisen earlier get fully solved and the purpose of the author is fully fulfilled. For instance, the story, already referred to, meets its denouement when the teacher stands up from his chair, takes a piece of chalk in his hand and bearing it with all his might writes the Phrase: Vive La France on the black-board and gestures to his children with his hand that means:  School is dismissed – you may go.

Though in some good stories these five stages are observed logically yet there are some good short stories where these five stages of the structure are not apparently visible as in Somerset Maugham’s The Verger, Nikolay Gogol’s The Cloak, Lakhminath Bezbaruah’s Patmugi etc. Even some good stories seem to be ended in climax as O’ Henry’s Romance of a Busy Broker, Atulanadnda Gowsmai’s Birthday Party, Leo N. Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need etc. Here to admit that though the above analyzed five stages of the structure of a short story are not apparently visible in many good stories yet a short story must have at least three stages as- introduction, elaboration, and conclusion.


The fifth important element of a short story is the Setting. Setting in a story involves the manners, customs, traditions, lifestyle, natural and man-made environment and other special peculiarities of a place where the incidents of the story take place. The depiction of the setting makes a story life-like and imparts vividness and fidelity to the story. The depiction of the setting in a story should always be consistent with the place, time and occasion. For example, in portraying a town life the storyteller must create a setting that is peculiar to a town. Thus in representing rustic or peasant life the storyteller should portray the surrounding which is peculiar to a rustic life. For illustration, the following extract from Guy de Maupassant’s A Piece of String may be quoted where the author has given a realistic and vivid picture of the poor peasants as:

All along the roads around Goderville the peasants and their wives were coming towards the town because it was market day. The men were proceeding with slow steps, the whole body bent forward at each movement of their long twisted legs, deformed by their hard work, by the weight on the plough, which, at the same time, raised the left shoulder and swerved the figure, by the reaping of the wheat which made the knees spread in order to hold the wheat firmly, by the slow and painful labours of the country. Their blue blouses, ornamented with a little design in white at the neck and wrists, puffed about their bony bodies, seemed like balloons ready to carry them off. From each of them a head, and two arms and two legs protruded.


The sixth important element of a short story is Dialogue. Dialogue refers to the conversation between two or more people. The use of dialogue imparts dramatic quality to a story. Dialogue should be used sparingly and carefully with the intention that through dialogues the plot may get evolved and the characters may get revealed with their true passion, emotion, motive, feeling etc.  Dialogue should be in keeping with the personality of the speakers and suitable to the situation. For instance, a king should behave and talk like a king, a maidservant like a maidservant, a ruffian like a ruffian, a beggar like a beggar, and a clergyman like a clergyman. In brief, to say, dialogues should be realistic but in using dialogue, the storyteller should take care that the speech may not go, in any way, beyond the purpose of the author. For example, in a real-life situation, people happen to make a quarrel in which the people involved use many unnecessary words or repetitions of the same words and phrases. The storyteller must eschew them all and employ only those speeches which serve the purpose of the evolution of the plot and the purpose of unfolding the inner motives, passion, feeling etc. of the characters. For illustration, the dialogues between Swaminathan and his teacher Samuel in R. K. Narayan’s short story entitled ‘Father’s Help’ may be quoted as:

He (the teacher Samuel) ordered the whole class to put away their books and asked someone in the second row, “What is the date of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India?”

Swaminathan shot up and screeched, “1648, December 20.”

“You need not shout,” said the teacher. He asked, “Has your headache made you mad?”

“I have no headache now, sir,” replied the thunderer brightly.

“Sit down, you idiot.” Swami thrilled at being called an idiot. “If you get up again I will cane you,” said the teacher. Swami sat down, feeling happy at the promise. The teacher then asked, “I am going to put a few questions on the Mughal period. Among the Mughal emperors, whom would you call the greatest, whom the strongest and whom the most religious emperor?”

Swami got up. As soon as he was seen, the teacher said emphatically, “Sit down.”

“I want to answer, sir.”

“Sit down.”

“No sir, I want to answer.”

“What did I say I’d do if you got up again.”

Philosophy of Life

The seventh constituent element found in a short story is the Author’s Philosophy of Life. The term ‘Philosophy of Life’ refers to the author’s ideas or outlook toward life. A story, though based on the realities of life, is a production of his own mind. It is not an exact copy of rude life. Hence in portraying life the author’s own outlook towards life falls on the story either directly or indirectly. The author may express his philosophy by means of his personal commentary, by elucidating the action or motives of his characters or by generalizing the question suggested by his characters or the author may leave it to be drawn out by his readers through the study of the story. In the short story entitled The Verger by Somerset Maugham, the author has shown that subordinate officials often become victims of haughty and arbitrary superiors. Besides this, verger’s life as a successful businessman shows that to get success in life, illiteracy is not a barrier to those who are sincere and dutiful.  Anton Chekhov, in his short story entitled The Bet has expressed his philosophy of life that it is better to live somehow than not to live at all.


The last but not the least component element of a short story is Language. Language refers to the written expression, by means of words, of human feelings, emotions, sentiments, experiences, knowledge etc. Language is the token as well as the medium of all literature through which the author gives shape to his subject. But in using language the authors enjoy freedom. The author may use standard dialect, vernacular language, and figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, irony, pun, wit, symbols etc. which may impart peculiarity to the author’s style. The linguistic style of the authors may be divided broadly into two types as- Simple and Complex. The Simple Linguistic Style is characterized by the use of concrete words, less use of figures of speech, the use of formal (not unfamiliar) words and phrases, and less use of poetic imagery, and free from too much emotional expression. The linguistic style of Leo N. Tolstoy is the highest specimen of simplicity in the whole range of world literature. Thus the language of O’ Henry, Ruskin Bond, and R. K. Narayan, may be called simple. The use of a Simple linguistic style imparts easy comprehensiveness to any literary art. For example, the following lines may roughly be quoted from Tolstoy’s The Imp and the Peasant’s Bread as:

A poor peasant went off early one morning to plough, taking with him for his breakfast a piece of bread. He got his plough ready, put his coat round the bread, hid it under a bush and started work. After a while, when his horse was tired and he was hungry, the peasant stopped ploughing, let the horse loose to feed, and went to get his coat and his breakfast.

On the other hand Complex Linguistic Style is characterized by the use of abstract words and phrases, complex sentences, unfamiliar words and phrases, poetic imagery, parenthesis, too much elaboration or too much brevity, ambiguity and much use of emotional expression. The Complexity of linguistic style imparts difficulty in the comprehensiveness of a literary text for the average reader. The linguistic style of E. A. Poe, Somerset Maugham, and Nikolay Gogol may be said to be complex. The following extract may be quoted from E. A. Poe’s short story entitled The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar as an instance:

My attention for the last three years had been repeatedly drawn to the subject of Mesmerism; and, about nine months ago, it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that in the series of experiments made hitherto, there had been a very remarkable and most unaccountable omission: no person had as yet been mesmerized in articulo mortis. It remained to be seen, first whether, in such condition, there existed in the patient any susceptibility to the magnetic influence; secondly, whether, in any existed, it was impaired or increased by the condition; thirdly, to what extent, or for how long a period, the encroachment of Death might be arrested by the process. There were other points to be ascertained, but these most excited my curiosity- the last in especial, from the immensely important character of its consequences.

Qualities of Short Story

In addition to the above-discussed component elements, there are some Qualities of Short Story as —Unity of Purpose, Brevity, Spontaneity and Universality. These qualities render peculiarities to a short story as a special branch of prose literature. The qualities of a short story should not be confused with its component elements because component elements of a short story are thought of to be concrete parts that may be shown by dissecting them, but the qualities are abstract things that cannot be shown dissecting into pieces. The qualities of a short story are achieved by the balanced, careful, faithful and logical use of all the component elements in a story. These qualities are going to be discussed below.

The Unity of Purpose refers to the author’s motive for composing his story. His motive may be to delineate certain incidents or portray a single aspect of a Character or to depict a special atmosphere or to show the author’s special outlook toward life in his story. Whatever the author’s purpose is, he must adhere to it from the beginning to the end of his story and he must work out his purpose by means of the essential elements of a story. But all the elements must contribute to shaping and revealing the author’s purpose. The author must always bear his purpose in mind so that his story as a whole can produce a single impression in the readers’ minds.

Brevity is another great quality, not an element, of a short story. It is achieved through maintaining the author’s single purpose throughout the story and through the use of the elements in a best-suited manner so that the story may take shape with the economical use of all the component elements. Anything superfluous is highly prohibited in a short story.  But brevity does not imply that the author should ignore any element in achieving it.

Spontaneity is another quality of a good short story. It refers to the logical and natural pouring forth of the author’s experience, feeling, emotions and motive that he wishes to display. He should not bring about anything by force. It is a quality that enhances the beauty and fidelity of a short story. In other words, to say, every feeling, emotion, action, and stages of the structure must follow the former one in logical order.

Universality is another quality that refers to the common acceptability of what the author imparts through his story as a whole. It is achieved by means of treating the theme of human interest.  The author’s feelings, emotions, experiences, messages etc. should correspond with that of the readers and they must feel that what the author narrates is their own.

All these qualities must be attained within the limited scope of the story by means of logical employment of the essential elements which is not an easy task for all artists. For this, the author must have preliminary but sincere training in this form of art.

Here to say that the elements and qualities of a short story as illustrated above are not present strictly in all the short stories of the world. There are immense stories in the world languages which are called short stories because of their treatment of some single event or fragment of human life. But in world languages, there is no dearth of short stories bearing all these features in a proper logical way. Here these elements and qualities are brought out after studying the representative good short sorties of the world so that the short story itself may stand as an independent form of prose literature with some self-identity. These elements and qualities should be used as criteria (standard) for judging a short story as a separate branch of literature. It is because, without a definite standard, nothing is possible to judge rightly, but the standard should be established not arbitrarily but by studying the representative literary creations of a genre. There are many short stories in world languages where all these qualities are apparently visible. For example – Rabindranath Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah; R. K. Narayan’s Father’s Help; Leo N. Tolstoy’s The Three Questions;  Alphonse Daudet’s The Last Lesson, The Child Spy; Anton Chekhov’s The Bet, Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, Haliram Deka’s Re Bare Bhai (O Elder Brother), Sayed Abdul Malik’s JeshuchristarShabi (The Photo of Jesus Christ),  H. E. Bates’ The Earth etc.

Types of Short Story

Short Stories, on the basis of the importance given to any special component element, may be of three types as- Short Story of Plot, Short Story of Character, and Short Story of Atmosphere. In a Short Story of Plot, the author gives importance to the plot rather than the character. He first invents a plot well and then fits characters to it. In such a short story, the sole aim of the author is to bring about the perfectness of his plot and the characterization becomes secondary.  In a short story of plot, the author does not bother in bringing about the perfectness of characterisation.  For example — Leo N. Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth but Waits, A Prisoner in the Caucasus; Nikolay Gogol’s The Cloak. In a Short Story of Character, the author gives emphasis on characterization rather than plot. He seems to be indifferent to bringing about the logical perfection of his plot. In such a short story the author first invents certain characters or characters with certain traits and then he takes shelter on a plot to portray them. For example Anton Chekov’s The Bet; Ernest Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain; Lakhminath Bezbaruah’s Patmugi, Mialaramar Atmajibani (The Autobiography of Milaram); Leo N. Tolstoy’s Two Old Men;  Lord Halifax’s The Invisible Passenger; Banaphool’s The Girl, Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace and so on. But most of the short stories of the world are the stories of character, not of plot. On the other hand, in a Short Story of Atmosphere, the author gives emphasis neither on the plot nor on the characterization but on portraying a certain atmosphere. In such a short story the author first imagines an atmosphere and to portray the atmosphere he takes some characters and a plot. In a story of atmosphere, the characterization and plot seem to be weak and the atmosphere becomes the sole subject of narration. But the Short Story of Atmosphere is rare to find. In the Assamese language, there are some short stories of his type as Trailokyanath Goswami’s Patit Aru Patita, Mahendra Bora’s Abyai, Radhika Mohan Goswami’s State Transport.

But many times the distinction between a short story of plot and the short story of character becomes hard to find. In many short stories both the plot and character seem to get the same importance.

Again Short Stories, on the basis of theme and subject matter may be classified as – Social Short Story, Short Story of Love, Short Story of Natural Phenomena,  Short Story of Family Life, Short Story of Patriotism,  Psychological Short Story, Detective Short Story, Ghost Story, Scientific Short story (Science Fiction) and so on. In a Social Short Story, the author portrays some social problems or social evils. Social short stories often become comic, humorous or ironic and the author seems to take a role of reforming society by means of making his readers aware of some social evils. The short stories of Leo N. Tolstoy, Lakhminath Bezbaruah, Rabindranath Tagore, Maupassant, Sayed Abdul Malik are social short stories. In a Short Story of Love, the theme of love predominates and the author inclines to show the consequence of love affairs which often becomes distasteful (though not always) causing suffering to the lovers. For example, the short stories of Lakhminath Bezbaruah entitled Patmugi, Bhadari, Ratan Munda; Turgenev’s The District Doctor; Maxim Gorki’s Boless; O’Henry The Romance of a Busy Broker are short stories of love. In a Short Story of Natural Phenomena, the author takes a definite interest in portraying some human action or reaction to any natural disaster. In other words to say, in such a story the author keeps natural phenomena in the background of human sorrow and sufferance or peace and happiness. Lakhminath Bezbaruah’s Jalkuwari, and Kanya are such types of short stories. In the Short Story of Family Life, the author portrays the family quarrel, the relationship of the family members or two opposing traits between two members of the same family which bring in a gap among the family members. Examples, Lakhminath Phukan’s Mahimamayee, Lakhminath Bezbaruah’s Jene Kukur Tene Tangun are some short stories of family life. In a Short Story of Patriotism, the author shows the struggle of a person for the welfare of his native land and his tragic or pathetic denouement. The Last Lesson by Alphonse Daudet is such a type of short story. In a Psychological Short Story, the conflict of the human mind rather than conflict in external affairs concerning something is portrayed. For example, some short stories of Anton Chekhov, O’Henry, Guy de Maupassant belong to this type of short story. In Detective Short Story, the author undertakes to delineate the skill of some detective personalities or police officers in investigating some crime. For example, the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, some short stories of E. A. Poe as The Purloin Letter, The Murder in the Rue Morgue; in Assamese, some short stories of Ranju Hazarika are detective short stories. In a Ghost Story, some ghosts or supernatural spirits are portrayed in relation to some human course of action. But as a short story is a genre of realistic literature hence a ghost story should not be totally supernatural or unrealistic. It should be based on some social belief and superstition. In a short story, as a genre of realistic literature, should not portray a ghost or any other supernatural agent as the principal character. Some of the short stories of Ranju Hazarika in Assamese, some of Guy de Maupassant in French, and some of  Nikolay Gogol in Russian belong to this genre of the short story. There is a type of short story which is termed as Scientific Short Story. In such a story some scientific mystery is taken into consideration. H. G. Wells is a pioneer in contributing to this type of short story.

The Length of Short Story

The Length of Short Stories differs from one to another. Some are very short, some are of medium length, some are long, and some are longer like a novelette. Short stories, on the basis of length, may be divided into four classes as- Short Story of Short Length (Mini Short Story) Short Story of Ideal Length, Short Story of Long Length, and Short Story of Longer Length.  A short story written within one thousand words may be called Short Story of Short Length (or Mini Short Story).  Bimal Mitra’s 1990in Bengali, Oscar Wild’s In Self love in English are two examples of Mini Short Stories. Some short stories of short length (mini short stories) are found in Assamese, in Hindi and in some other languages also. A short story composed of 1001 words up to 2000 words may be called a Short Story of Ideal Length. Most short stories of the world are short stories of ideal length.  Alphonse Daudet’s The Last Lesson, Guy de Maupassant’s The Jewel, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah, Leo N. Tolstoy’s The Three Questions, Anton Chekhov’s The Bet, and Somerset Maugham’s The Verger are some specimens of Short Stories of Ideal Length. A short story bearing 2001 up to 5000 words is called a Short Story of Long Length. Leo N. Tolstoy’s A Prisoner in the Cacausus, God Sees the Truth but Waits; Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Case of Identity are short stories of long length. A Short Story bearing words 5001 onwards is called to be a Short Story of Longer Length. A short story of longer length may be called a novella or novelette (short novel) if it bears some single plot and few characters. Leo N. Tolstoy’s What  Men Live By, Nikolay Gogol’s The Cloak, Taleb Salih’s The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid (A Sudanese Arabic short story) are short stories of longer length as they are composed of more than five thousand words.

Predecessors of Short Story

Though the short story is thought of to be a new independent branch of literature born only in the nineteenth century yet prior to the birth of the short story the storehouse of world literature was not devoid of story-like composition. There was the existence of Anecdotes, Parables, Folk Tales, Myths etc. in many languages of the world. For example — in Sanskrit, there were prose storybooks like Hitopadesh, Panchatantra, Katha Sharit Sagar, Buddah Jataka etc. In Italy there were tale books as Gesta Romanorum, Decameron, in Greek there were Aesop’s Fables, in Arabic there was a storybook-like Arabian Nights, in the Old Testament of the Bible there are some stories as of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and even in the New Testament there are some parables which read like a story.  In addition to these, there were abundant folk tales still in vogue in many languages of the world handed down from generation to generation. In all these ancient stories and tales some characteristics of the modern short story are visibly present as plot, characters, dialogue and even philosophy of life. On this ground, some dilettantes like to throw glib remarks that the modern short stories are the offspring of the ancient tales in modified form. But from the logical viewpoint of literature, this remark is not true because in spite of the presence of some characteristics of the modern short stories in them there are some salient differences between the modern short story and the ancient story (ancient tale) as —

First, ancient stories or tales are mostly allegorical or metaphorical. Besides human characters, there are birds, animals and even some supernatural agents as characters who can speak and think like human beings. But modern short stories are realistic, the characters are human beings. There is no scope for supernaturalism in modern short stories.

Secondly, the main objectives of the ancient tales were to impart moral lessons to the people through entertainment. But the short story aims at giving only entertainment not moral lessons to the readers.

Thirdly, the ancient tales are of unknown authorship. Sometimes authorships are bestowed to the compilers only. But the modern short story is the product of those authors whose identity can easily be known.

Fourthly, most of the ancient tales were composed orally and handed down orally from generation to generation. But modern short stories are composed in written form.

Fifthly, the characteristics of the ancient stories vary from story to story as there were no fixed standards or rules in composing them. But the modern short story has taken birth with some fixed theories which are maintained in composing and judging them.

From the above-mentioned discussion, it is seen that the modern short story is not a modified form of the ancient tales but a new creation that has its peculiar characteristics and hence this new form of literature should be treated as an independent branch of literature.

Short Story and Novel- A Comparison

Both Short Stories and novels are fictitious prose forms of literature based on reality, both treat human aspects and actions, and both contain the same elements as their raw materials. In spite of this likeness, there are some distinctions between the two and these distinctions lie in scope and spirit as—

First, the scope of a short story is limited. It bears one plot or some single aspect of human life. There is no scope for more than one plot or sub-plot in a short story. On the other hand, the novel treats a wider range of human aspects. It can bear more than one plot or many sub-plots after the wishes of the novelist.

Secondly, the short story does not permit the entry of many characters. Its main characters hardly be more than two and there is no free scope of full characterization in a short story. On the other hand, in a novel, the novelist can introduce as many characters as he wishes. He enjoys absolute freedom in characterization. For example, in the novel, War and Peace Leo N. Tolstoy introduced more than four hundred characters.

Thirdly, from the structural point of view, the short storyteller has to abide by some strict discipline and rules to maintain the logic of structure within a limited scope. In brief, to say, the short story is the more rigorous and compact form of art. On the other hand, the novel is the loosest of all arts. The novelist gets enough space to shape his story after his will.

Hence though the raw materials (component elements) of both the novel and short story are the same, in scope and manner of treatment, they differ from each other. Here to say that a short story composed of more than eight thousand words is called a longer short story or novella. If such a story bears more than one plot and more than two principal characters it should be called not a novella but a short novel.

Causes of Popularity of Short Story

From the very inception of the short story as a new genre of literature, it has caught the attraction of the reader community and has attained immense popularity and this popularity has been running on till today. The causes of the popularity of short stories may be discussed below:

First, the human mind is instinctively inclined to novelty and when they found the short story as a new thing, they grasped it immediately and consequently it got popularity.

Secondly, man is curious to know about men and manners. The short story provides him with these resources within a limited campus which is easier to imbibe. So he attracts to it.

Thirdly, in the modern busy world, people hardly get enough leisure time to read bulky books like novels and epics so as a substitute people have taken to reading short story.

Fourthly, magazines and newspapers have taken an important role in popularizing this genre of literature as they publish it regularly and provide them within people’s easy reach.

Short Story and One Act Play-A Comparison

There is a close relationship between the Short Story and One Act Play though they are two distinct forms of literature.  The raw materials (component elements) and qualities of a short story and a one-act play are the same. Both treat some single aspect or fragment of life, both have few human characters, dialogue, compact structure, setting and philosophy of life. But in spite of such affinities between the two, there are some distinctions as—

First, the One-Act Play is a genre of drama. It is composed with the sole aim of playing on the stage for spectators. The enjoyment of a one-act play is imparted to the spectators by means of a moving exhibitions of the author’s story on the stage. But a short story is composed for reading only. The readers themselves have to derive the pleasure of enjoyment through the reading of the short story.

Secondly, one-act play is an objective type of literature as dialogue is the sole medium of expressing the author’s theme. On the other hand, a short story may be subjective as well as objective and hence the author gets the freedom to analyze his characters.

Thirdly, in a one-act play, the setting is given in stage direction within brackets. On the other hand, the author of a short story gives the setting of his event by means of direct narration.

Fourthly, in a one-act play, the classical three unities as unity of time, unity of place and unity of action are observed strictly. But in a short story, the unity of action is observed strictly and the other two unities are not taken into consideration.

The Future of Short Story

There is no denying the fact that the short story is the most popular form of literature in the present time but about the Future of Short Stories nothing can be said for certainty as the production and popularity of any genre of art depends upon human mentality which has been changing with the passing of time. As long as the human mind does not get a drastic change and a better substitute for a short story does not come into being so long its popularity would remain intact.

Since the birth of the short story, as a new genre of literature, till the present day, there have been being produced thousands and thousands of short stories every year; but among them, only a few stories are of the first grade. Among the few short sorties of the first-grade mention may be made of Leo Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth but Waits, A Prisoner in the Caucasus; Anton Chekhov’s The Bet, Guy de Maupassant’s A Piece of String, The Necklace, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah; Alphonse Daudet’s The  Last Lesson; R. K. Narayan’s  Leela’s Friend, The Martyr’s Corner; Ruskin Bond’s Once a Thief, Lakhminath Bezbaruah’s  Patmugi, Haliram Deka’s Re Bare Bhai. These short stories may be used as the criteria (yardstick) for judging a short story as a genre of independent literature.


From the above analytical study of the various aspects of some representative short stories of the world, we can come to the conclusion that a short story is a fictitious short prose narrative based on reality which is characterized by a single plot representing some single aspects of human life with a conflict either inward or outward, few realistic human characters, reliable setting, logical structure with a  beginning, middle and end in itself bearing the author’s philosophy of life written either subjectively or objectively in simple or complex linguistic style. 0 0 0.

Chief Characteristics of Short Story

Reference Short Stories:

1. Alfonso Daudet: The Last Lesson, The Child Spy

2. Anton Chekhov: The Bet,

3. Guy de Maupassant: A Piece of String, The Necklace, The Jewel

 4. Nikolay Gogol: The Cloak

5. R. K. Narayan: The Martyr’s Corner, Leela’s Friend, Father’s Help, Lawley Road

6. Rabindra Nath Tagore: The Cabuliwallah

7. O’ Henry: The Romance of a Busy Broker.

8. Somerset Maugham: The Rain, The Verger

9. Edgar Allan Poe: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Purloin Letter, The Murder in the Rue Morgue

10. Leo  N. Tolstoy: The Imp and the Peasant’s Bread, God Sees the Truth but Waits, A Prisoner in the Caucasus, Two Old men, How Much Land Does a Man Need, The Three Questions.

11. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Case of Identity

12. Tayeb Salih: The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid

Chief Characteristics of Short Story

Read More: World Short Story Criticism

Chief Characteristics of Short Story

N. B. This article entitled ‘Chief Characteristics of Short Story’ originally belongs to the book ‘Laws of Literature’ by Menonim Menonimus. Chief Characteristics of Short Story

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Books of Literary Criticism by M. Menonimus:

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  3. World Drama Criticism
  4. World Novel Criticism
  5. World Essay Criticism
  6. Indian English Poetry Criticism
  7. Indian English Poets and Poetry Chief Features
  8. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry-A Thematic Study
  9. Walt Whitman’s Poetry-A Thematic Study
  10. Critical Essays on English Poetry
  11. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Novel: Return of the Spirit-An Analytical Study
  12. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Novel: ‘Yawmiyyat Naib Fil Arayaf’-An Analytical Study
  13. Analytical Studies of Some Arabic Short Stories
  14. A Brief History of Arabic Literature: Pre-Islamic Period
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I am Menonim Menonimus, a Philosopher & Writer.


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