All About the Short Story
Dictionaries define a short story as "a story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel." We might do well to find fault with that final clause -- there are many short stories that are as elaborate or even more elaborate than commonly published novels. So let's work on a better definition. The short story genre, or short story form, encompasses fully developed fictional stories that are typically between 1,000 and 20,000 words.
Short stories enjoyed great cultural popularity in recent modern history, a phenomenon that was aided by technical innovation. As the technology and economics of printing presses improved in the early 19th century, more and more people in America and around the world gained access to newspapers and periodicals. That started in the 1830s and expanded over the following decades. While it was impractical to publish a full-length novel in a newspaper -- Moby-Dick is 206,052 words long -- a short story, a complete end-to-end work of short fiction, fit wonderfully well and provided readers with a cherished escape at a time in history when easy access to entertainment was quite limited. Ironically, at a time when access to all forms of entertainment are at our finger-tips thanks to the Internet, modern readers are demonstrating a renewed interest in short stories, and rediscovering the classic short stories collected here; there are more than 4,000 short stories at this site! The genre probably fits very well with our busy modern lifestyles, allowing us to fill 15 and 30 minute gaps in our busy lives with a fun and rewarding reading experience. We answer some commonly asked questions about the short story below.
What is the definition of a short story in literature?
A short story is a work of fiction that is categorized by its length. Historically, short stories are typically between 1,000 and 20,000 words long and can be consumed in a single reading session -- I think we should shorten the upper limit in the modern era, as specified below in "How long is a good short story?" below. Works longer than a short story but shorter than a novel are classified as Novellas and works shorter than 1,000 words are increasing classified as very short stories, short short stories, or flash fiction. Despite their brevity, short stories are complete works of fiction generally exhibiting the common literary devices of; character, setting, plot, conflict, and theme.
How long is a good short story?
In the modern era, I think it's safe to categorize a short story to be between 1,000 and 7,500 words. I think there is reasonable consensus there. The novella or novelette occupies the space between the short story and the novel, between 7,500 words and 20,000 words. The novel, of course, occupies the domain above 20,000 words. But the interesting question here is not "How long is a good short story?" The more compelling question is what makes the compact length of a short story so effective?
Edgar Allan Poe wrote about the form in his 1896 essay The Philosophy of Composition where he qualified it temporally -- by time. He considered the duration of a literary work to be critically important consideration, "If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting..." -- we lose the benefit of a single reading session -- "... for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed." Poe recognized that there was something special in a single session of reading and that short stories and poems of a certain length could capitalize on that special quality.
The average reader reads about 130 words per minute, so a 1,900 word story can be read in just under 15 minutes. The Short Story of the Day makes it convenient and easy for readers to enjoy a great story at any time.
How are short stories different from poems?
Short stories are written in prose, and organized according to the whims of the author, in whatever fashion deemed necessary to deliver the story with maximum effect to the reader.
Poems are written to the specific verses, meters, or rhymes that characterize that genre of literature. We offer a fine collection of Poetry for Students if you seek verses, rather than prose.
Where can I find examples of good short stories?
We have over 4,000 short stories published here, but selecting at random is probably not a winning strategy. You can make an informed decision from our Short Story page, or, if you'd prefer to get straight down to business but have nothing special in mind try a selection from 100 Great Short Stories -- which actually contains 160 short stories because we just couldn't stop at 100!
The short story form also exhibits incredible variety. In addition to famous classic short stories like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Federigo's Falcon, there are Christmas Stories, Ghost, and Gothic stories, Civil War stories and many other sub-genres. Please use our navigation bar or search box to enter author or title to find what you are looking for.
Some short stories define easy categorization. You can read the following short short story by Kate Chopin in 90 seconds or less. But it might take you much longer to figure out what it is; short story, or is it as much poem, essay, or social statement. Enjoy this one, it is beautiful: The Night Came Slowly.
We encourage students and teachers to visit our Study Guides for popular short story titles and literary genres, to get the most out of great short stories you are reading. We will continue adding guides based on reader interest and requests. Please email your suggestions for works in the public domain to us: firstname.lastname@example.org
We also have a library of Short Stories for Students and Books for Young Readers