The Mark Blog

What's a Short Story, Anyway?

I thought I'd gotten the definition of a short story straight. Almost every conversation on the topic starts with Edgar Allan Poe’s famous quote: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build toward it.” But an overwhelming number of opinions and definitions flow from there.

In her essay “What Makes a Short Story?” Francine Prose poses a litany of difficult questions, followed by “…all of these seemingly impossible questions are, in fact, far easier to address than the deceptively straightforward matter of what constitutes the short.”

At our last workshop, Antoine pointed out that a piece of mine that I considered to be a story read more like a chapter in a novel. This was especially true within the context of the larger collection. After workshop, it was clear to me that I needed to add scenes and conflict in order to make it a stand-alone short story.

Turning to Making Shapely Fiction, I found Jerome Stern had this to say about the genre: “A story is what happens to the reader. By something I mean something that’s emotionally and intellectually moving enough to have some gravity, some weight, some sense of significance. By happens I mean makes an impression, causes a reaction, precipitates a thought, creates a mood. A story makes a reader feel as if they have had an experience…” Wow. What I appreciate about Stern’s definition is that it makes the reader of central importance.

In workshops I have often heard the short story defined as the moment after which the character is changed forever. This seems true enough, but I'm not sure it's the whole answer in my situation. In the story that inspired this discussion, my character is making a life-altering decision, but there is no sense of conflict or doubt surrounding the character's other options. For this reason the story doesn't seem to have much emotional impact.

In the end, I keep going back to Stern’s definition. There’s almost a sense of magic to writing, an element that cannot be defined or taught. Even though there is a craft to writing, there is also an art to it. Short stories are definitely labors of love.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations, which comes from Andre Dubus: “I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.”