More than one hundred-seventy years ago Edgar Allen Poe described two characteristics of the short story which set it apart as a distinct literary type – brevity and coherence. In other words a short, logical tale that can be read completely in one evening. Every unnecessary word, every extraneous statement has to be eliminated from the text in order to meet the criteria of a true short story. Which of course makes the writing of a short story more difficult than writing a novel.
Well, now that that is said, let’s look at what it takes to developed that sliver of concise, well crafted narrative into a tale that can hold the reader spellbound from the opening line until the last punctuation mark.
Of course this process goes on over and over again – and then again, rewriting after each rejection. So who in their right mind came up with the rules for this mini torture device for authors called the short story?
While many historians do not completely agree who to credit with writing the first literary short story, they do agree that something happened in the world of the printed word sometime in the 1800′s, around the time that Washington Irving was retooling old German folktales into new tellings for American readers.
Though his literary efforts remain entertaining, Irving’s tales lacked the tightly woven structure and economy of language to characterize them as true short stories. Enter a trio of writers, two Americans and one Russian, to develop the new literary technique into what we know it as today.
In the mid 1800′s, similar structure ideas of narrative prose occurred to these three different writers although they were a world apart. American authors Nathaniel Hawthorn, Edgar Allen Poe and Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol began to blend a mix of supernatural elements, folk tales and romance into concise fictional works to create the first short stories.
Many historians believe that Gogol’s tale “The Overcoat,” written in 1840, is the true antecedent of the modern short story. Indeed, most literary critics agree that it is a remarkable example of this artistic writing form as penned by the wily Russian.
Meanwhile in America the mythical romance within a realistic world story began by Irving, blossomed – well actually shortened – in the hands of Hawthorne and Poe. Their narratives contained the tight, precise construction of details and imagery that is today defined as a short story. These same characteristics found in both Poe and Hawthorns tales – first exhibited in Gogol’s work - where a real world protagonist is engaged in an unusual conflict within a plot line that includes both supernatural and dreamlike elements – are the essence of almost every short story.
Classic, well-written tales, “A Cask of Amontillado” by Poe and “Young Goodman Brown” by Hawthorn, prove their case as American literature’s original short story writers.
However the definitive brief composition didn’t arrive until a bit later, around 1856, when Herman Melville took pen in had to produce the likes of “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” That is when the modern short story came of age. With theses stories Melville established the benchmark for the short story and set the literary standards by which all the other great writers of the form have been measured.
Hummmm, just opened the afternoon mail – another rejection. Time to start rewriting again.