Writing Course: History of the Short Story

A short story is fiction. It should not be confused with true events, which is written as non-fiction. A short story is an account of what if? What might have happened.

It is difficult to determine when the first short story was written. Narratives from The Golden Age of Greece and the New Testament contain principles that are applicable to its present form. However, it is usually conceded that the short story had its beginnings with Washington Irving in the early 19th Century, when he published Rip Van Wrinkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These stories had their limitations, they progressed slowly and lacked the movement associated with a French school of writers headed by Balzac and Gautier, but they were popular.

During the last 150 years the short story has developed as a type of prose fiction. It is now distinguished from a novel only in its construction and, of course, length. The short story is constructed according to definite artistic principles. A novel permits greater character development and complex plot construction, whereas a short story does not.

Types of Short Story

There are two basic divisions for a short story — realistic and escapist. Both of these are forms of literary fiction. Then there is the “type” of fiction, known as genre. These include children’s stories, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, adventure, thriller and detective.

Realistic: These are stories where the subject matter is closely related to events and incidents that occur in real life. The author writes details as they see them and does not gloss over events, no matter how gruesome or affronting. The characters may be based on real people, real conversations and real situations.

Escapist: Many readers don’t want to read about every day situations set in the world they live in. They want worlds of fantasy and melodramatic excitement, where they can identify with the characters but experience colourful romances, alternate words and life how we don’t know it. They want to escape their life and project themselves into these other worlds.

Four Early Short Story Writers

Four writers paved the way to what is now expected in short stories. They wrote with conviction, technical brilliance and power of expression. They are:

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe was the first person to set down specific rules relating to the construction of a short story. These rules have been adopted almost universally.

  • It must create one impression.
  • It must be capable of being read in one session.
  • Every word must contribute to the total effect, which has been pre-determined by the author.
  • This effect must be created immediately, and then gradually developed throughout the story.
  • When the effect reaches a climax, the story must end.
  • Only essential characters should be used to gain effect.


The Russian School (Gogol and Turgenev): In the 19th Century two Russian writers, Gogol and Turgenev, emphasised character rather than actions. Between them, they created realistic portrayals of human sufferings, passions and grief of everyday people. Gogol insisted that the short story must attempt to do one thing only, and must allow the plot to develop naturally without being forced into a conventional pattern.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Stevenson claimed a short story could be written in three different ways.

  • You may take a plot and fit characters to it.
  • You may have a character and choose incidents to develop it.
  • You may take a certain atmophere and get actions and persons to realise and express it.


Stevenson set out with the intentions of writing about atmosphere. He would choose a situation or setting, then select a character and start writing.

Other authors have also made big changes to the way we approach writing short stories. O. Henry introduced the surprise ending at the turn of the century. H. G. Wells looked to science and the future in his stories. Hemingway turned to stories of adventure and social conventions.

Your Own Writing

It is important to know the above as it will help you write short stories, but it is important to remember also that you must feel free to always develop your own methods. Rules are helpful, they will get you started, but they are not rigid.

Other skills an aspiring writer will need are:

  • read short stories written by other authors
  • have a good command of the English language and how to construct a sentence
  • strive to broaden your vocabulary
  • be aware of publishing opportunites
  • learn to be professional in presenting yourself and your work
  • attend writers’ workshops and readings
  • accept construction criticism
  • be prepared to rewrite until your story is right
  • persevere despite numerous rejections from publishers
  • study the market carefully


Your Writer’s Journal

It is a good idea to keep a journal of your writing activites. Use a notepad, if you like, or buy a student diary. However you decide to do it, make a pen and paper account of the writing you do including planning, research, networking, submission and anything else you do that is writing related. By doing this, you will see how much time you spend doing each activity and you will also find out how much time you actually dedicate to the craft of writing itself.

Writing – 1 hour
Planning – 2 hours
Submissions – 1/2 hour
Networking – 4 hours

Writing – 1.5 hours
Research – 3 hours
Networking – 6 hours

Most aspiring writers discover they spend more time doing everything else other than actually writing.

Lastly, try writing a diary, by hand. Write about your life, your moods, yours loves and hates, your family, your hobbies and whatever else you feel you want to write about. Don’t be afraid to write about your writing journey also. Write about your aspirations, your disappointments, the methods you employ and disregard. Write your diary whenever the mood takes you and you will find a new perspective open up to you.

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