The Short Stories

3 The Short Story

3.1 Offshoots


The tale telling impulse is too potent and fecund in human beings and cannot be confined to any fixed narrative pattern. Thus the history of the modern short story embraces a number of narrative categories which show similarities and affinities with the story but are in fact distinct genres in themselves. At times, one single story may display one or more of them operational within it. Ian Reid lists a number of these tributary forms which have contributed to the growth and evolution of the short story proper. Let us take a brief look at these.

    The Sketch

A sketch is predominantly descriptive and the emphasis falls on what some thing, person or place is like. It does not show any temporal movement and is virtually static. American writers in the early 1820, 1830s produced sketches especially regional vignettes of local scenery, customs and the like.

In England too sketch like pieces were produced by eighteenth century periodical writers while depicting fictitious personages and the most memorable of them was ‘Sir Roger Coverley’ in The Spectator essays of Addison and Steele. This was different from the seventeenth century portrayal of abstract human categories like ‘The Malcontent’ or ‘A Puritan’.

While a mere pen portrait or a landscape essay can hardly be called a story yet both can figure in a story and thus make for an overlapping of the two. A sketch without a plot on the other hand is too deficient in human action to be called a story.

    The Yarn and the Tale

Anecdotes are fragmentary episodes, often about something supposed to have happened to a famous personage e.g. Sir Isaac Newton and the falling of the apple. A yarn is an elaborated anecdote or series of anecdotes and is narrated in a colloquial and casual tone associated with the oral tradition of tale telling. The word derives its meaning from the sailor’s slang in which rope making became a metaphor for story spinning and thus the yarn. The telling is matter of fact and the setting naturalistic or even a narration of actual events. Usually it designates a fairly straight forward, loose knit account of strange happenings.

Anecdotes verge on the modern short story when amplified as tales. A tale is a loose and imprecise term, which can be applied to any kind of fictitious narrative. Among the several specific sorts of tales are the gest (from Latin gesta, deeds), relating to adventurous exploits; the ballad, a popular romantic tale in verse form; the fairy story and the yarn.


While the yarn used naturalistic and realistic settings, the Marchen appeals to our sense of the marvelous. Supernatural elements dominate here but Marchens are different from myths in that the point of focus is not religious matters or aristocratic heroism but familiar daydreams and nightmares of ordinary folk. These were the ‘stories about fairies, the realm or state in which fairies, elves, dwarfs, witches and trolls etc. exist along with the sun, the sea, the sky, the moon, the earth ... and ourselves, mortal men when we are enchanted.’ Marchens in that sense are different from children’s ‘fairy stories’. Such tales found their way into the mainstream of literatures of several countries across the globe.

    Parable and Fable

Both parable and fable were quite similar in their pre-modern form when each was geared towards using an analogy between the main narrative elements and aspects of general human behaviour. The most obvious difference however is that the fable endows animals (or sometimes vegetables and mineral objects) with human capabilities while the characters in a parable are generally human beings and certain details in setting and character may be symbolic. Both are didactic and instructive but unlike the fable, the parable need not be cynical or ironical and its meaning need not be instantly apparent. It is when they no longer insist on a narrowly didactic point that these two forms can enter the realm of the short story.

    Mixed Modes

As evident from the title itself, these are stories, which play off one set of narrative conditions against the other. We may find in such stories the sketch, the yarn, the ballad, the fairy tale, the comic hyperbole or the tall tale and the parable. The mixed mode stories are thus a compounding of various narrative types into one but we must not make the mistake of supposing that an amalgamation of all these narrative conventions goes to make a short story. As discussed earlier, the genre of the short story does not have only ‘monotypic purity’ and can thus embrace many forms of narrative conventions. Yet a certain formal poise, a cohesiveness or psychological cogency can distinguish a short story from other kinds of brief prose writings.

Just as there is a tendency to consider any piece of brief prose narrative as a short story so also there is a tendency to locate a short story in all kinds of extended prose narratives which are shorter than novels. In fact these types of writings lie between the short story and the novel but once again are distinguishable from the short story proper. Among these extended prose narratives are namely, the Novella which is ‘an individual narrative of medium length and breadth’; the Cycles which are “collections of stories unified by interconnecting themes, motifs and characters and the Framed Miscellany which are collections of stories unified within a framing device. All these extended prose narratives have stories to tell but cannot be categorized under the genre of the short story.