The Three Types of Short Story

It's a simple task to define the short story in opposition to other literary genres, even in purely qualitative terms. The short story is distinct from a novel (or, for that matter, a short extract from a novel) in many ways: the protagonist of a short story doesn't have to be fully 'back-storied', they can remain fairly anonymous, we don't need a family tree for them; nor do they need to be the sort of ultimately-likeable everyman that so dominates the novel (we don't have to get on with the start of a short story, the way we have to get on with a novel's central character as a 'fellow traveller' in the long 'plotted' course that is the novel's journey). 

Equally the moral compass of a short story doesn't have to be as fixed as the novel's, there doesn't have to be that cumulative truth you find in a novel, always building and pointing in the same direction; as Nadine Gordimer argues, the short story's truth is momentary, discrete and fleeting, and as such the story can occupy a more morally ambiguous (and therefore realistic) universe. Also, we might distinguish the short story's revelation - and the nature of it - as being of a more singular, untempered variety than a novel's (if the novel trades in revelation at all). 

Conversely, and at another level, the novel could claim greater realism for reflecting the fact that any chain of consequences leading from a single act is indefinitely long, all relationships go on, arguably, forever. Whilst in a short story, they are re-defined suddenly at the close, and then abandoned in a kind of unchanging stasis.

However, in trying to understand how a short story works on its own terms, short shrift will come from mere comparisons with the novel. What we need to talk about are the autonomous structures that make up the wider species we call short fiction. For the purposes of this Resource, we suggest the form be regarded in terms of three structural types - as discussed in more detail in the introduction to Parenthesis (2006) - namely: Epical, Lyrical & Artifice.

Please note many of the arguments in the Parenthesis introduction draw from the essays gathered in Charles E May's books: Short Story Theories (1977) and New Short Story Theories (1994).


In realist short fiction, brevity is commonly 'wired-in' through the withholding of a part of the narrative - a hidden, suspended element, whose absence is ultimately unsustainable (it's only a matter of time before it drops into view). This 'buckling' version of the short story is by far the most dominant species, and constitutes the vast bulk of the realist short fiction canon. Typically the best stories of this type are those where, despite being inevitable (in retrospect), the arrival of this missing part is genuinely unexpected from the readers' point of view. The revelation, when it comes, has to re-illuminate all that's preceded it, giving life to what was previously just latent by locking with it, perfectly, and casting it in a new light. The supposed great shift in short story writing brought about by Chekhov and Joyce - between traditional revelations (in which external conflicts are resolved externally, by external events or discoveries about external events) and modernist 'epiphanies' (in which the revelation/resolution is entirely internal) - merely constituted a shift in practice within the Epical short story form. It is also worth saying that the quality of the revelation (as well as the means of its delivery) differs from the traditional to the modernist; in the traditional story the revelation is finite, in terms of our understanding of it - guilt is apportioned, an identity is revealed, a secret act is uncovered. In modernist epical short stories, however, the revelation is more open; coming from inside the character, and affecting their (and our) perspective on the world, it colours a more indefinite range of things, if not everything. 

In both traditional and modernist stories the revelation occurs at the end (or in some cases just after the end, in the reader's realisation), and re-illuminates the characters and events that preceded it. In this sense the end of Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral' and the climactic exposition of a classic Sherlock Holmes story are not altogether dissimilar. In both cases the quality of the final revelation aspires towards that of an unexpected discovery, a twist.

An examplar of the traditional twist story is Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge'. An exemplar of the modernist 'epiphany' story is James Joyce's 'Araby' (Dubliners, 1903). 

*For more about the shift from the traditional external to the modernist epical internal see Philip Stevick's introduction to the anthology Anti-Story.


If the Epical story has, according to critic Eileen Baldeshwiler, ‘a decisive ending that sometimes affords universal insight,’ the Lyrical short story, by contrast, ‘relies for the most part on the open ending.’ Instead of focusing on plot, the Lyrical story is distinguished by its emphasis on a central recurring image or symbol, around which the narrative revolves, and from which it acquires an open and flexible meaning. An obvious example of this open or flexible meaning can be found in Mansfield’s short masterpiece, ‘The Fly’. Here, the image of the fly being tortured by the old man (‘the boss’) can be interpreted in various contradictory ways (symbolising the boss’s previous relationship with his son; allowing a form of revenge on the world; demonstrating the boss’s lack of grief; betraying the boss’s repression of grief). By being ‘open’, the symbol doesn’t insist on one reading, or meaning, but allows for many. It remains unexplained, and unresolved. And once established – usually early on in the story – the image, though returned to and re-interpreted several times, remains externally static.

It is worth noting that Lyrical short stories also need an external plot (sometimes with an epical shape to it) which runs in tandem with the development of the image. Unlike the purely epical structure however, the final 'revelation' comes not from some last-minute revision, but from the ultimate irresolvability of the central image. Until this point the lyrical and epical elements enjoy a symbiotic relationship: the image informs our understanding of the plot; while the external events extrapolate/develop one or more of the embryonic 'meanings' offered by the image. 
Lyrical stories generally eschew complete closure - the atmosphere is established early, sustained throughout and merely rings louder in its absence after the close.

It could be argued that there is an additional 'shared' function that all (or at least many) Lyrical images perform. That is, to act as stand-in where the protagonist is perhaps inexplicably unable to express himself or herself. In Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’, the old boss has ‘arranged’ a time in which he can have a cry about his dead son, but then finds he cannot cry. The torture of the fly fills that gap. 

In other classic Lyrical stories the central image again stands where an expression was wanted but never came, or it represents the inability to express oneself; the pear tree in Mansfield’s story ‘Bliss’; the arranged furniture on the lawn in Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’; the helmet of ice in David Constantine’s ‘The Loss’; the un-posted, unwritten letter of Martyn Bedford’s 'Letters Home'.

These all represent a desire to say something that the protagonist cannot say, to let tears flow, or joy abound. 

Essential Reading

Katherine Mansfield's The Fly (1922).
Katherine Mansfield's 'Bliss' (1922).
David Constantine's 'The Loss' ( Raymond Carver's 'Why Don't You Dance?'
Martyn Bedford's 'Letters Home' in The Book of Leeds (Comma, 2007)


A third type of short story should be considered, for deriving its 'surprise' not from the arrival of any revelation, or the escalation of any image, but from the intertwining of two seemingly incompatable ingredients: be these two incompatible story-lines, perspectives or indeed realities. This ingredient may take the form of a literary conceit, an over-arching metaphoric device or a single, abruptly inserted incongruity, but in all cases it is introduced into an otherwise conventional narrative at the start of the story, with the greater 'meaning' of the story emerging directly from the unlikely symbiosis of the inserted artifice* and the conventional plot. The defining exemplar of this type is, of course, Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' (1915). Here the opening 'irreality' plays against the human drama of the story, which follows an otherwise conventional plot; the surrealism of the artifice shines a light onto the emotional/psychological realism of the conventional story. 'Metamorphosis' shows that the conceit must be random, unlikely, preposterous even; and yet somehow perfect. Not any contrivance will do. Take the decision in Adam Marek's 'Testicular Cancer vs The Behemoth' (Instruction Manual for Swallowing) to smash together entirely incompatible genres: literary realism and B movie sci-fi. The decision always seems illogical, like a malfunction in the fiction programme but, in retrospect, it's an incongruity that couldn't have been better chosen. This sense of part of the story being 'wrong but right', unexpected and arbitrary but serendipitously perfect, is something that any regular short story reader will be familiar with.

By inserting something so ‘out of place’, the author actually sets in motion two separate stories that will ultimately run parallel, or rather equidistant, both of them illuminating the other. The absurd storyline of the bug takes on moments of great mundanity, while the realist surrounding storyline is cast in an absurdist light. Though in many ways the two stories never quite make contract with each other. 

Please note that an understanding of the above forms is not possible without having read (or listened to) many, many examples of them!

*Use of the word 'plot', here or elsewhere, properly implies not only a sequence of events, but a certain type of sequence, namely one that establishes a conflict; escalates or complicates it, and then ultimately resolves it: Conflict - Complication - Resolution. See Robert McKee's Story for the definitive guide in a screenplay context.

**It’s worth noting the word ‘artifice’ has been used by other short story critics, particularly, Charles E May, to denote something quite different from what we intend – for May, artifice is a quality of the folk story, allegory or fairy tale, even though in its natural habitat – i.e. the period when oral literature was dominant – the folk story’s devices were arguably far less out-of-place. For my purposes, artifice short fiction denotes a deliberate injection of a single non-realist element into an otherwise realist story. The key word here is ‘deliberate’.