What is a Short Story? 
It’s More Than You Think

Man reading a short story.

What is a short story? We’ve all read them. We may have even written some ourselves. But in order to get the most from the short story, whether reading or writing them, we need to understand them thoroughly. So, exactly, what is a short story?

It’s prose. It’s writing that uses “ordinary language without a formal structure or metrical pattern . . . Prose is the most common way to tell a story because it uses the same plain language most of us use every day. Prose allows for a more natural and fluid expression of ideas, and it follows the conventional rules of grammar, using clear and coherent sentences” (Edwards).

A short story tells a story using prose writing. This is the same type of writing that we read every day in magazines, newspapers, novels, and other types of writing. It’s everyday writing.

What is a Short Story?
Here are Some of Its Elements

Girl with question marks

The short story consists of 1,500 to 7,500 words, according to some literary experts. Others feel it should range between 5,000 to 10,000 words. The short story is fiction, known as prose fiction. One of its broadly accepted definitions is that it typically can be read in a single setting. It tells the story of a single incident to evoke mood or atmosphere.

As children, our parents may have read us fairy tales, or we may read them to our children or grandchildren. We may also be familiar with Aesop’s Fables. The fairy tale and the fable are examples of short stories.

What is a short story? It is prose fiction that uses elements to deliver its story:

  • Plot 
  • Theme
  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Character

Let’s take a look at the fable, to see how it differs from the traditional short story characterized by the bullet points listed above. 

The Fable:

As noted by MasterClass, “A fable is a short story that illustrates a moral lesson. The plot of a fable includes a simple conflict and a resolution, followed by a maxim. Fables feature anthropomorphized animals and natural elements as main characters.”

Learn more about the fable.

The traditional short story, then, has more conflict, less emphasis on a moral lesson, and doesn’t use talking animals, creatures, or inanimate objects. Often the maxim or lesson comes at the end of the story in a simple message or sentence.

Take a look at the popular, time-honorable fable of The Hare and the Tortoise:


The arrogant hare taunts the tortoise by saying he is swift and the tortoise is very slow. Undaunted, the tortoise challenges the hare to a foot race. The hare accepts and is so sure of himself that he races far ahead of the tortoise and takes a nap. The tortoise passes the sleeping hare and crosses the finish line. When the hare awakens and finds he’s lost the race, he’s stunned and outraged. 

This story has a strong maxim, which is: that the race does not always go to the swiftest.

Image: Canva and Dream by Wombo

What is a Short Story? 
It’s a Story That Creates an Atmosphere

A gothic village

Many writers debate that, “penning a good short story is much harder than writing an entire novel. With the latter, there’s plenty of space to unpack character, theme, and plot. With a short story, however, every word counts. The best short stories speak volumes within a few slim pages” (Hilden).

In other words, short story writing is tight writing. There’s not much wiggle room. The message must be gotten across succinctly. Knowing this, the writer is under a strict obligation to know the ins and outs of the writing craft and deliver to the reader a quality short story.

Let’s look at a popular short story released in 1948. Hilden points out the atmosphere of this story: “The Lottery is a masterwork of grim atmosphere and troubling themes. The story of a small village lottery -- the winner of which will be stoned to death -- it almost singlehandedly created the modern concept of gothic horror thanks to its gloomy atmosphere and use of thought-provoking, disturbing irony.”

Here, the atmosphere is gloomy to the point that it acts as another character. The story has a hook, which means it hooks the reader by evoking intrigue. The reader now wants to know if the lead character will escape his or her fate upon winning the lottery. The reader becomes invested in the short story and feels compelled to set aside time to read it.

What is a short story? It’s prose fiction that packs a punch!

Unless otherwise indicated, all images: Dream by Wombo

Edwards, Shanee. “What Is Prose?” ScreenCraft, 31 July 2023, screencraft.org/blog/what-is-prose/.

Hilden, Nick. “From Contemporary to Sci-Fi, These Are the Best Short Stories.” The Manual, 15 Mar. 2023, www.themanual.com/culture/best-short-stories-ever-written/.

“Writing 101: What Is a Fable? Learn about the 4 Central Characteristics of a Fable and 4 Famous Fable Examples - 2023.” MasterClass, MasterClass, 1 Sept. 2022, www.masterclass.com/articles/writing-101-what-is-a-fable-learn-about-the-4-central-characteristics-of-a-fable-and-4-famous-fable-examples.