It is difficult to define a short story precisely. No single formula will cover its immense range and variety. It is, indeed, a far cry from the primitive legends to the subtle touches of Manpassant. It is an adaptable mould, which can be used to express any mood. It can be romantic and sentimental, ironic, astringent or humorous, lyrical or objective. It is this variety that makes it so impossible to define. It is an imaginative narration consisting of a few incidents, drawn from a single situation, and having a unity of effect.
It will be easier, however, to comprehend its real nature by placing it against the novel. A novel cannot be abbreviated into a short story, nor can a short story be expanded into a novel. The novel deals with incidents progressing with cause and effect, inter-relation marching towards an ultimate solution. It is the modern counterpart of the epic. Its object is the grand totality of life. But a short story exposes a situation representing a mood, as if in a flash. Its motive is essentially lyrical.
Unlike a novel, therefore, it does not admit of a large number of characters, of variety of events or interests. Whereas the novel is expansive, the short story in concentrated, and the more it stays away from the centre, the less does it conform to its type. Its nearest and most allied literary type is the One-Act Play.
Judging it in relation to other forms of narrative art, it can be said that a true short story differs from a simple incident in that it makes use of suspense or tension of a drama differs from the actual events in that it has action moving towards and end; from the novel in that it can present only one crisis, the one momentary flash of life; and from the drama in that it may be intensely subjective, and may dispense with dialogue, if need be.
Though the short story has to deal with incidents, it is severely selective in its use of these. The selection is influenced by the writer’s way of looking at life. After all, the incidents are not the end of his art. Behind the vision, again, there is the writer’s mood, the originating point of his perception. Hence, the short story must, express a dominant mood through which a particular incident may reveal itself to him.
Necessarily, characters must come into a short story since it is impossible to conceive incidents apart from characters. The exposition of character, however, is not its main function, as it usually is in a novel where the interaction of characters and incidents helps the evolution of the plot. Characters like the incidents to which they are inter-linked, are the raw materials. They exhibit the mode and take colour from it. If the writer’s mood is ironic or humorous, romantic or cynical, intensely personal or detached and objective, the characters will be modified accordingly. Hence, a number of characters is necessarily ruled out, since that may run counter to the integrity and unity of the mood as well as structure of the story.
It is obvious that to express a complex mood in its rise and fall, with all its concomitants of incidents and characters, fused into a compact unity, demands the highest literary skill. It is not the mirror of life but the mirror of the moment. The moment has only to be isolated from all that is not immediately relevant to it. Atmosphere of the short story is the colouring of the environment to harmonise with the mood. The short-story writer cannot, for the purpose of elucidation as a novelist, expand its diversity as the novelist can.
Hence the short story focuses attention on a significant moment, expresses it through relevant incidents and makes the incident operative through the action of the character first, then through a symbolical atmosphere it holds the entire structure in a unified form. A short story may be of the length of a post card as often written Bonophul in Bengali as it may run into hundred pages as one written by D.H. Lawrence.
There are three ways of writing a short story as mentioned of by R. L. Stevenson. You may take a plot and fit the characters; or you may take a character and choose incidents or situations to develop it; or lastly, you may take a certain atmosphere and get characters, actions, and persons to express and realise it.
It is impossible to formulate a set pattern for such an elastic literary type as the short story is. The variations are as numerous as human moods. There is the abrupt and dramatic opening situation or prologue; the unexpected complications, the tension leading to a climax, the resolution of the climax leading to the unfolding. But both the complication and the resolution must involve suspense or surprise.
Thus, the opening situation serves the purpose of supplying just the minimum of information necessary for understanding the essential motive of the story. A novelist may dwell at length over details but a storyteller has to economise. In other words, he must supply details as are immediately wanted. Much of his success will depend on the skill with which the author utilises the opening situation for engaging the interest and the attention of the reader. Indeed true art here lies in concealing art.