Sometimes, the length of a story can intimidate us. A mammoth-sized novel can feel like a monumental challenge, and if the story’s dry, can feel impossible to get through. A lengthy story can also allure us, drawing us deeper with the promise of fully fleshed-out characters or lifelike fantastical worlds. Though many stories run long, they don’t need to. Sometimes, short stories are the ones that hit that perfect sweet spot in between.
While short stories are notably compact, their resonance cannot be contained. With such compelling tales told with brevity, the shortened length becomes a storytelling advantage, losing no depth in its themes and meaning.
Like novels and plays, some short stories become classics, such as Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, and other memorable works.
Short stories may not always have a complete ending, but that doesn’t make them incomplete. Ambiguous or abrupt endings allow stories to persist, off the page and in the reader’s mind. The lack of details or closure also creates more room for interpretation and invites discussion with other readers.
Compared to full-length novels, short stories can benefit readers by getting straight to the point and gripping their focus. The single setting read-through can make the story’s last paragraph or sentence stand out more even more. Just because the story itself is short doesn’t mean its impact is limited.
Brevity also helps enchant readers for the short time we devote to reading. As Poe says in an 1842 review, “In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal, the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control. There are no external or extrinsic influences—resulting from weariness or interruption.”
The immersive quality of one sitting is often overlooked. Usually, in the time it takes to read a short story, the stories are ours and we are theirs. And when we finish the story, and we break from its charm, it still leaves us satisfied and ready for the next one.
This allure is especially true for people who don’t have time to read—short stories become a great way to save time and develop the habit of reading more. Encouraged by the faster pace, it’s also a chance to explore multiple genres that the literary world has to offer.
While everyone has their own preferences, one literary form isn’t better than the other. Each style is best suited for the type of tale. There’s no doubt LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas would affect readers differently as a full-length novel. Conversely, J. R. R. Tolkien couldn’t have built the expansive, larger-than-life world in The Hobbit in just a few pages.
Part of literature’s beauty lies in the different ways that stories can be told. Each form will always have something unique to offer and its own special charm.
If you’re interested in learning more about the short story form, there are some fascinating courses offered within UTM’s English program, including ENG213 (The Short Story) or ENG215 (The Canadian Short Story).