What Is a Short Story?

At the time I compiled this, I had edited two collections of short stories: STAY TRUE: Short Stories for Strong Girls (Scholastic) and I BELIEVE IN WATER: Twelve Brushes with Religion (HarperCollins). Contributors to these two anthologies and several editors from different publishing houses attempted to answer this perennial question.

Marilyn Singer

“The Magic Bow” (Stay True) “Fabulous Shoes” (I Believe in Water)

A short story is, in some ways, like a photograph–a captured moment of time that is crystalline, though sometimes mysterious, arresting, though perhaps delicate. But while a photo may or may not suggest consequences, a short story always does. In the story’s moment of time something important, something irrevocable has occurred. The change may be subtle or obvious, but it is definite and definitive.

In addition, while it is the audience that supplies the backstory for a photo, it is the writer who must give the audience a beginning, middle, and end of a short story. Without that structure, the piece is not a short story at all but a scene, a vignette, a fragment–evocative, yes, but not emotionally or psychologically satisfying.

Gregory Maguire

“Chatterbox” (I Believe in Water)

About twenty years ago I heard someone say that if the novel was a feature film, the short story was a snapshot. I liked that, as a snapshot itself, but when asked to comment, I add that the short story, to me, is a blurred snapshot by an incompetent chronicler, who cannot be trusted as a novelist should be. But the blur, the things one can’t see but can only infer, has implications, too: of movement, of cause and effect outside the range of the print. The snapshot catches a moment in time, but the blur proposes an extension beyond the margins. Emotional, spiritual, psychological, as well as (one hopes) narrative and event.

Jacqueline Woodson

“On Earth” (I Believe in Water)

For myself a short story is fiction that is more immediate and urgent than a novel. I think of it cinematically–the camera zooming in on this one climactic moment, then pulling back on either side of the moment to show all that leads up to and comes after it.

Donna Bray

Editor at HarperCollins, Balzer & Bray

A short story is like the illumination of a match. All the details have to work toward that illumination.

Peni Griffin

“The Truth in the Case of Eliza Mary Muller, By Herself” (Stay True)

A character whose conflict is resolved in under 10,000 words preferably, in the modern market, in under 5,000.

I’m sure your audience would like something more poetic, but there are so many right ways to write a short story that only technical definitions are really useful. Without the character/conflict element, it’s not a story it’s a mood piece, a joke, a vignette, an essay, or maybe a prose poem.

Jennifer Armstrong

“The Statue of Liberty Factory” (Stay True); “The Martyrdom of Monica MacAllister” (I Believe in Water)

A short story is only one of many narrative structures. We create narrative with jokes, ballads, tales, novels, poems, anecdotes, etc. The short story form has been opened up dramatically with experimentation in adult venues, but remains very true to its traditional European roots in children’s and young adult venues. While there are many satisfactions to be found in the conventional beginning-middle-end narrative that is common in short fiction for kids, I believe young readers can respond to many other forms of short narrative. I await the kind of creative fiddling in this form that I’ve seen in novels by writers such as Avi, Karen Hesse, Virginia Euwer Woolf, Walter Dean Myers, etc. So, my answer is that the short story, when we talk about juvenile literature, is a traditionally plotted narrative, which rises to a climactic denouement and resolves in fifteen pages or less.

Virginia Euwer Wolff

“Religion: From the Greek Re Legios, to Re-Link” (I Believe in Water)

I’ve tended to tell my literature students that a short story is probably under 80 pages. (The Old Man and the Sea, clocking in at 94 pages, cannot be a short story; it explores in greater breadth and depth the potential meanings of that fishing trip than a short story could probably do.)

My favorite short story, Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” is 32 densely-packed pages in one of my Gogol books.

Easier–of course–to say what a short story is not. It is usually not a profound character study. And it is usually not a one-liner stretched thin like bubble gum. There are the temporal unities, too. See Aristotle.

When I reach my arms way out to my sides and then bend them upward, I can encompass a short story, even such fine, analysis-defying works as Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or Eudora Welty’s “A Piece of News.” But with my arms in that position I can’t possibly reach around Uncle Tom’s Cabin or War and Peace or David Copperfield.

I’d suggest that the richness of a short story is what may come back to us in car-stopping flashes, weeks or years later, whereas the richness of a novel is the kind that never truly leaves us.

But it’s important to add, too, that short stories can change lives as surely as novels can. J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” added dimensions to the lives of kids of my generation in ways that the great novels did not. I believe that that story and Gogol’s “The Overcoat” are two of the things that let me know in some utterly pre-verbal way that I’d be a writer someday. (If I’d known how to say the words out loud, no one would have believed me.)

M.E. Kerr

“Guess Who’s Back in Town, Dear?” (Stay True); “Grace” (I Believe in Water)

The biggest difference, to my mind, between a short story and a novel is that after you’ve finished a short story, you and your life haven’t changed.

I think a short story is usually about one thing, and a novel about many… A short story is like a short visit to other people, a novel like a long journey with others.

Marian Bray

“The Pale Mare” (Stay True)

Short stories are like Quarter horse racing. Bang! Out of the starting gate as fast as possible and across the finish line before the audience can assemble their thought. The story blindly races forward. But, the author, the horse trainer, has trained very hard ahead of time.
Novels are like Thoroughbred racing. The starting gate snaps open and they’re off, but with more style and grace and planning. Those longer races take a lot of mental grit during the race.

Matt Rosen

Editor, formerly at HarperCollins

The short story is hard to define well. I remember reading a collection of short stories by Jack London, at around age eight, and what thrilled me about some of those stories was not just the fast-paced action and exotic, though not impenetrable, locales, but their digestibility. I could go to bed feeling like I’d completed a whole adventure-very satisfying for just a half-hour of reading. However, what I think I liked the most about them was the fact that there was always something left to the imagination. I valued the room that the author had left for me, the reader, to explore.

Drew Lamm

“Stay True” (Stay True)

A short story is a story that I don’t get or is too short when I do get it and I’m into it! I have never liked them! They bug me. Either I don’t get them and I feel like a kid in school unable to figure out the hidden meanings or I’m totally into it and can’t bear to have it end so soon with so many possible pathways untrod. Like being given only three delicious potato chips out of a whole bag! (For sweet lovers that would be only one lick of an ice-cream cone!)

Sharyn November

Editor, Viking Penguin

A short story collection is the literary equivalent of a Whitman’s Sampler. The reader pokes around to see what’s interesting — reads some stories the way you’d snap up the Truffle or Caramel, flips past others the way you’d put back the Bad Mint Cocoanut Swirl. A short story is bite-sized. Like good chocolate, it’s intense. It’s long enough to make you care about the characters — but it resolves in a way that’s satisfying, rather than seeming unfinished or overdone.

Andrea Davis Pinkney

“Building Bridges” (Stay True)/Editor, Scholastic

A short story is like a good meal–it gives you flavor and just enough to chew on, but leaves you completely satisfied.



Compiled by YA specialist Patty Campbell, who writes “The Sand in the Oyster,” a regular feature about young adult books, for The Horn Book.

Story, n. – A narrative, commonly untrue.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

·    Dirty Laundry: Stories about Family Secrets, Lisa Rowe Faustino, ed. Viking, 1998, Eleven original stories by acclaimed young adult writers like Graham Salisbury, Chris Crutcher, and M.E. Kerr. (J, S)

·    Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad by Rob Thomas. Simon & Schuster, 1997; Aladdin, 1999. Ten stories by this popular author about high school seniors who meet epiphanies while doing required community service hours. (S)

·    From One Experience to Another, M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, eds. Forge, 1997; Forge, 1999. Avi, Joan Bauer, Joan Lowery Nixon, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Virginia Euwer Wolff and other YA authors share real-life experiences through fiction. (S)

·    Ghost Town: Seven Ghostly Stories by Joan Lowery Nixon. Delacorte, 2000.
Mysterious tales based on actual western ghost towns. (M)

·    Gone From Home by Angela Johnson. DK Ink, 1998. Twelve poignant vignettes on loss and abandonment, courage and tenderness, by the winner of the 1994 Coretta Scott King Award. (M, J)

·    Help Wanted: Short Stories about Young People and Work, Anita Silvey, ed. Little, Brown, 1997. These twelve stories by authors such as Michael Dorris, Ray Bradbury, and Judith Ortiz Cofer deal with an important rite of passage for teens-the first job. (J, S)

·    I Believe in Water: Twelve Brushes with Religion, Marilyn Singer, ed. HarperCollins, 2000. A dozen well-known YA authors craft stories from a wide variety of spiritual traditions. (J, S)

·    Kissing Tennessee and Other Stories from the Stardust Dance by Kathi Appelt. Harcourt, 2000. Touching stories about the lives of the kids at the Dogwood Junior High School dance. (J)

·    Leaving Home, Hazel Rochman and Darlene Z. McCampbell, eds. Harper, 1997; Harper, 1998, pbk. Fifteen distinguished authors like Amy Tan, Sandra Cisneros, and Toni Morrison explore personal journeys. (S)

·    Lord of the Fries and Other Stories by Tim Wynne-Jones. DK Ink, 1999. Fast food for the imagination by this master of quirky little tales. (M, J)

·    No Easy Answers: Short Stories about Teenagers Making Tough Choices, Donald R. Gallo, ed. Delacorte,1997; Laurel-Leaf, 1999. Sixteen short stories by YA authors about teens facing hard ethical and moral dilemmas. (J, S)

·    Odder Than Ever by Bruce Coville. Harcourt, 1999. Outlandish stories from a witty SF author, including the delicious title story from Am I Blue? in which the world is in for some surprises when everyone gay turns blue for 24 hours. (J)

·    On the Edge: Stories at the Brink, Lois Duncan, ed. Simon & Schuster, 2000. The queen of YA suspense brings together some literary and psychological cliffhangers. (M, J)

·    145th Street Stories by Walter Dean Myers. Delacorte, 2000. A YA master writer tells us about the folks who live on one block in Harlem. (J, S)

·    Petty Crimes by Gary Soto. Harcourt, 1998. Stories from life on the hard streets of the barrio. (M, J)

·    Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers, Judy Blume, ed. Simon & Schuster, 1999. YA writers who have been under attack each contribute a story and comment on how it feels to be censored. (J, S)

·    Stay True: Short Stories for Strong Girls, Marilyn Singer, ed. Scholastic, 1998; Scholastic, 1999, pbk. Stand on your own two feet and act on your convictions! say these short tales. (J, S)

·    Time Capsule: Short Stories about Teenagers Throughout the Twentieth Century, Donald R. Gallo, ed. Delacorte, 1999. In this eighth collection by an award-winning editor each of ten YA authors–Bruce Brooks, Richard Peck, Chris Lynch, and other YA luminaries–draw a story from one decade of the century. (J, S)

·    Tomorrowland: Stories about the Future, Michael Cart, ed. Scholastic, 1999. Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Jacqueline Woodson, and other distinguished YA writers explore the future in ten short stories. (M, J)

·    Twelve Shots: Outstanding Short Stories about Guns, Harry Mazer, ed. Delacorte, 1997; Laurel-Leaf, 1998. Stories drawn from the way we are with guns in the real world, by Walter Dean Myers, Richard Peck, Rob Thomas, and eight others. (J, S)

·    With All My Heart With All My Mind: Thirteen Stories About Growing Up Jewish, Sandy Asher, ed. Simon & Schuster, 1999. The cultural and religious traditions of Judaism provide a rich inspiration for these YA authors. (J, S

·    Working Days: Short Stories about Teenagers at Work, Anne Mazer, ed. Persea, 1997, pbk. Fifteen stories about teens in a variety of work situations. (J, S)

·    Zebra and Other Stories by Chaim Potok. Knopf, 1998. Stories of teen struggles against the adult world’s rules and regulations, by the distinguished author of The Chosen. (J, S)

KEY: M (middle school); J (junior high); S (senior high)


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