The Many Kinds of (Short) Fiction

Below I’ve outlined some of the major kinds of stories (tellings or narratives) that pre date the “short story.” These categories are not meant as little boxes into which you should write your work. I offer them only as boundary points in the field of short fiction: by familiarizing yourself with some of the work that’s been done in these admittedly arbitrary categories, you may help yourself define what your own artistic standard is for the short story and thereby determine where you stand in the scheme of things.

An anecdote is the very short telling of an incident or an episode, often humorous, told usually for entertainment and sometimes to make a point.

EXAMPLE: “When I lived in Naples, there stood, at the door of my palace, a female mendicant [beggar] to whom I used to pitch coins before mounting the coach. One day, suddenly perplexed at the fact that she never gave me any signal of thanks, I looked at her fixedly. It was then I saw that what I had taken for a mendicant was rather a wooden box, painted green, filled with red earth and some half rotted banana peels.” Max Jacob, Le Cornet a Des (1917), translated by Anthony Kerrigan.

This anecdote might be used by the speaker in a conversation about his poor eyesight, say, or his haste. Almost always an anecdote is part of a larger context of discussion. The most common kind of anecdote is the joke.

EXAMPLE: A guy walks into the doctor’s office. The doctor is shocked to see a tiny green man sitting on top of the guy’s head. “Good thing you came in,” the doctor says. “It looks like you need help.” The little green man blurts, “You bet I do, Doc. Could you remove this ugly growth from my butt?”


Like a parable, an exemplum (plural = exempla) is a short tale told to illustrate a lesson or make a moral point. Both of these are frequently religious and can be found in sermons, where they’re used to underscore the preacher’s point. In fact, “exemplum” is the Latin word for “example.”

EXAMPLE of a Jewish parable of Lithuanian origin, from Folktales of Israel, by Dov Noy and translated by Gene Gaharav:

Many years ago in a small hut within a forest in Lithuania there lived a gentle old woman. Many thought that she was a witch. She lived on mushrooms and on water from the well close by. She did not like human company and used to repeat all the time a single sentence, “One day you will find yourself.” Nobody knew the meaning of these words.

The old woman often paid visits to a Polish landlord in the neighboring village. From time to time he gave her some food. In the course of time the landlord began to hate the old woman, and one day he decided to get rid of her. He baked for her a beautiful cake but put within it some poison.

That day the landlord talked with his guest in a very friendly fashion, and the conversation went longer than usual. The old woman whispered again and again, “One day you will find yourself.”

“Yes,” thought the cunning man within his heart, “shortly she will find herself or the Angel of Death will find her.” And he delivered the cake to the old woman. “Such a cake you have never tasted before,” he assured her.
The old woman took the cake, thanked the merciful host, and went home.

On the same day that the old woman visited the landlord, his young son participated in a big hunt in the woods. He and his servants lost their way and so came across the hut where the old woman lived. He told her how thirsty and hungry he was, and she invited him to have a piece of cake, which she had not yet touched. The young man fell down after his first bite. When the servants saw the master dead, they sent immediately for the father. Only then, when the landlord fell down on his son’s body weeping bitterly, did he understand what the old woman’s words meant “One day you will find yourself.”

You see how true is the Jewish proverb, “The man who makes holes falls into them himself” (Psalms 7:16).

EXAMPLE of an exemplum, from The Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, edited by Thomas Crane:

A hermit was indignant at Adam’s transgressions, and a companion to correct him inclosed a mouse in a dish, and gave it to him, saying: “Brother, do not see what there is in this dish until my return.” The hermit could not resist his curiosity, and raising the cover the mouse escaped. When his companion returned, and did not find the mouse, he said to the hermit: “You blamed Adam because he so lightly transgressed the command, but you have transgressed it more lightly.” The hermit’s presumption ceased, and his anger was changed into pity.

Parables, obviously, are as old as the Bible (older, actually). Exempla were used as lessons in sermons by priests in the Middle Ages (1000 1500 A.D.), and they are still used today. Both are often allegorical. In its simplest form, anallegory personifies certain ideal qualities or attributes. For example, an allegory may present the idea of virtue in a character called Virtue, who acts and speaks as the ideal virtuous person. An allegory, then, makes a one to one correspondence between the character and the idea that character represents. It is a very clear kind of symbolism.

EXAMPLE: A story in which two characters, one named Virtue and the other named Vice, fight for the company (the soul) of a man named Pilgrim, would be allegorical; Virtue representing the goodness of humankind, Vice representing the bad, and Pilgrim representing humankind seeking its proper place in the scheme of things. Like its related forms the parable and the exemplum, the allegory involves very little character development or plot complication. Its function is didactic, to teach a lesson.

A fable is like the tale in that it is fantastic, very short, and often anonymous in origin. Unlike the tale, however, the fable is distinguished by a very specific convention (common practice): usually its characters are animals that talk and act like humans. You may have heard the fable of the fox and the grapes. After trying every possible way of getting at the grapes, growing high above him on an arbor, the fox decides to give it up. “The grapes were probably sour anyway,” he says. This is where we get the term “sour grapes,” meaning that we usually look down on something we can’t get.

As this example illustrates, the fable usually makes a point or lesson, called a moral. The fable of the fox and the grapes comes from Aesop. Like the brothers Grimm, Aesop, a Greek slave who died in 560 B.C., assembled a collection of fables common to his native land. Many of our best known fables come from his collection.

EXAMPLE of an Aesop fable, “The Mice and the Weasels,” translated by Lloyd Daly in Aesop Without Morals:

The mice and the weasels were at war. The mice kept losing in every engagement and decided that their lack of leadership was responsible for this. They therefore chose candidates from among themselves and elected generals. These, wishing to be distinguished in appearance from the others, devised horns and attached them to their heads. Once the battle started, the mice found themselves defeated. While the others all ran for their holes and got in without any trouble, the generals couldn’t get in because of their horns and so were caught and eaten.

You should be aware that the words “fable” and “tale” are often used in a general way to describe any make-believe story, just as the word “story” is used to refer to any narrative.

There are many kinds of folktales: tall tales, fairy tales, ghost tales, fables, parables (as in the example above) etc. All are anonymous, having grown from various tellings among the common people (the “folk”), and all are usually short and to the point, sometimes humorous, sometimes scary, but always entertaining. Virtually every culture in the world has its own body of folktales which were told orally for generations before anyone bothered writing them down. Usually folk tales reflect the particular needs, desires, fears, and hopes of the people who cherish and tell them.

Here’s an EXAMPLE of an African-American folktale, many of which centered on the master/slave or overseer/worker relationship; this one, found in A Treasury of Afro- American Folklore, edited by Harold Courlander, is called “Old Master and the Bear”:

One day Ole Massa sent for John [the name most commonly used for the African American slave or worker in these tales] and tole him: “John, somebody is stealin’ my corn out de field. Every mornin’ when I go out I see where they done carried off some mo’ of my roastin’ ears. I want you to set in de corn patch tonight and ketch whoever it is.”

So John said all right and he went and hid in de field.

Pretty soon he heard somethin’ breakin’ corn. So John sneaked up behind him wid a short stick in his hand and hollered: “Now, break another ear of Ole Massa’s corn and see what Ah’ll do to you.”

John thought it was a man all dis time, but it was a bear wid his arms full of roastin’ ears. He throwed down de corn and grabbed John. And him and dat bear!

John, after while got loose and got de bear by the tail wid de bear tryin’ to git to him all de time. So they run around in a circle all night long. John was so tired. But he couldn’t let go of de bear’s tail, do de bear would grab him in de back.

After a stretch they quit runnin’ and walked. John swingin’ on to de bear’s tail and de bear’s nose ’bout to touch him in de back.

Daybreak, Ole Massa come out to see ’bout John and he seen John and de bear walkin’ round in de rin [ring]. So he run up and says: “Lemme take holt of ‘im, John, whilst you run git help!”

John says: “All right, Massa. Now you run in quick and grab ‘im just so.”

Ole Massa run and grabbed holt of de bear’s tail and said: “Now, John you make haste to git somebody to help us.”

John staggered off and set down on de grass and went to fanning himself wid his hat.

Ole Massa was havin’ plenty trouble wid dat bear and he looked over and see John settin’ on de grass and he hollered: “John you better g’wan git help or else I’m gwinter turn dis bear aloose!”

John says: “Turn ‘im loose, then. Dat’s whut Ah tried to do all night long but Ah couldn’t.”

EXAMPLE of a Mexican folktale, from Folktales of Mexico, edited by Americo Paredes:

It is said that elves are little creatures, and that they play all kinds of tricks. Once they carried off a woman’s saltcellar, and they stole a box of chile peppers from another woman. They appear at night, especially in the kitchen, and they play tricks on women who are cooking.

Many years ago, in the flour mill at San Pedro Piedra Gorda, elves drowned a little old man in flour. In those times there were many elves who played really mean tricks on people. One family got so tired of their elf that they decided to move to another house. They did so, and they were leaving their old dwelling when they remembered they hadn’t brought the broom along. They were asking each other about it when they heard a little voice saying, “Let’s go. I’ve got it here with me.” They saw it was useless to move, and they came back home and made the best of living with their elf.

The fairy tale is one kind of folktale. Whereas the tall tale deals more with superhuman characters, the fairy tale deals more with supernatural characters (ghosts, goblins, witches, and fairies). You’ll find more magic in fairy tales than in tall tales, for instance. Like tall tales, though, most fairy tales are anonymous and national in origin: each country has its own collection of fairy tales.

Many of the most memorable fairy tales in the USA and England such as Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Little Red Riding Hood come from Germany. One reason for this is that two German brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, gathered together a great number of German fairy tales and published them in the early 1800s, when reading was becoming widespread among the middle class here and in England.

A legend is an anonymous tale or story that has been passed down orally over the years and is generally believed (by the common folk) to be true or at least based on a true incident, though no one can prove its validity. Every region or locale has its legends about certain historical figures who made a mark in that part of the country. Many legends or myths have grown up around such American heroes as David Crockett and George Washington, who, as you well know, were real people.

Similar to legends, myths are anonymous tales or stories about deeds, actions, or events that explain certain customs, rituals, characteristics, etc. of a place or a people. One myth associated with the Spartans of ancient Greece told of a Spartan youth who secretly brought a wolf cub, under his toga, to the training field where he was ordered (along with the other youths) to stand at attention for hours. The youth true to the Spartan credo was so disciplined that he did not break his stand at attention the entire time, even though the wolf cub, still hidden in the toga, ate through the boy’s stomach.

A collection of myths pertaining to a particular people or to a particular subject is called a mythology. Greek mythology, for example, is the collection of stories that tell of the Greek gods and what part those gods played in shaping and controlling the Greeks’ universe.

EXAMPLE: the myth of Pandora, as told by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod inWorks and Days, translated by Rhoda Hendricks in Classical Gods and Heroes:

The Gods keep the means of livelihood hidden from mankind. Indeed Zeus [the king of the gods] concealed it from men, for he was angered in his heart because the crafty Prometheus had deceived him. For that reason he brought about sorrowful misery for mankind.

Zeus hid fire, but Prometheus, the brave son of Iapetus, stole it back from him in a hollow stalk of the fennel plant without being seen by Zeus who delights in thunder. But soon Zeus the cloud gatherer spoke to him in anger:

“Son of Iapetus, crafty above all others in schemes, you rejoice that you have stolen fire and deceived me, but this will be a great sorrow to you yourself and to all men in the future. For, in return for the theft of fire, I shall give mankind an evil over which everyone may rejoice in his heart, but he will lovingly embrace his own destruction at the same time.”

As he finished speaking, the father of men and gods laughed aloud. Then he commanded famous Hephaestus [god of craftsmanship] to mix earth with water without delay and to put into the mixture the voice and strength of a human and to create the shape of a fair and lovely young maiden like the immortal goddesses in appearance. He also bade Athena [goddess of wisdom] teach her handicrafts and how to weave a web with artistic skill, and directed golden Aphrodite [goddess of love] to shed grace upon her, and longing and cares that bring pain and weariness to soul and body.

He also instructed the guide Hermes to put into her both a shameless heart and a deceitful disposition. . . . Zeus named this woman Pandora [meaning “all gifts”], because all those who had their homes on Olympus [the mountain headquarters of the gods] presented her with a gift, each one a source of misery to mortal men.

When he had completed this utterly unavoidable snare, the father [Zeus] sent renowned Hermes, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it [all the miseries, which were sealed in a jug, and Pandora] as a gift to Epimetheus [Prometheus’s brother]. Epimetheus was not mindful of what Prometheus had told him when he had warned him never to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus but to send it back so that it might not in any way turn out to be an evil to mortals. Instead, he accepted the gift and then, after he already had the evil thing, he remembered the warning.

For before this the tribes of men [without any woman until Pandora showed up] had lived on earth apart from evils and without the hardships of toil and grievous sicknesses. But the woman [Pandora, who couldn’t help her curiosity] lifted up the great cover of the jar of gifts with her hands, and they were scattered everywhere. Thus she brought about sorrowful misery for mankind.

. . . There is no way at all to escape the will of Zeus.

Both of these terms refer to incomplete pictures. A vignette is a photograph or picture focused on a scene or person without attention to the surrounding background and the finished borders. You’ve seen portraits, no doubt, that have only a little shading around the person and no other detail. That’s one kind of vignette. A sketch, of course, is just that it’s sketchy, unfinished, a rough approximation of the scene or character.

A sketch, an anecdote, a vignette, or a scene are all short writings that do more to show a “slice of life” than to tell a story. They are like snapshots, whereas a short story is like a movie. A short story is comprised of several scenes, for example, and usually goes into greater character and plot development than does a sketch, a vignette, or an anecdote.

A character sketch, for example, simply draws (in words) the rough picture of a person’s character. It describes how the person looks and acts, and it may show how that person deals with a particular problem; but it doesn’t go farther, as a short story would, to follow that character as he or she changes or evolves significantly in response to some problem a sketch, then, is fairly one dimensional; it doesn’t illuminate the story of a life; and it doesn’t really “go” anywhere; it simply focuses on a particular aspect in appreciation or appraisal.

Here’s an EXAMPLE of a sketch about a general type of character (a stereotype) by Charles Dickens, from Sketches of Young Gentlemen (1836); this piece makes fun of the gloomy, “poetical young gentleman,” the would be creative writer or “artiste” of Dickens’s time:

. . . We know a poetical young gentleman a very poetical young gentleman. We do not mean to say that he is troubled with the gift of poesy in any remarkable degree, but his countenance is of a plaintive and melancholy cast, his manner is abstracted and bespeaks of affliction of soul: he seldom has his hair cut, and often talks about being an outcast and wanting a kindred spirit. . . .

The favorite attitude of the poetical young gentleman is lounging on a sofa with his eyes fixed upon the ceiling, or sitting bolt upright in a high backed chair, staring with very round eyes at the opposite wall. When he is in one of these positions, his mother . . . will give you a nudge . . . and whisper with a shake of the head, that John’s imagination is at some extraordinary work. . . . Hereupon John looks more fiercely intent upon vacancy than before, and suddenly snatching a pencil from his pocket, puts down three words . . . on the back of a card, sighs deeply, paces once or twice across the room, inflicts a most unmerciful slap upon his head, and walks moodily to his dormitory.

. . . The poetical young gentleman is fond of quoting passages from his favourite authors, who are all of the gloomy and desponding school. He has a great deal to say, too, about the world, and is much given to opining, especially if he has taken anything strong to drink, that there is nothing in it worth living for. . . .

When the poetical young gentleman makes use of adjectives, they are all superlatives. Everything is of the grandest, greatest, noblest, mightiest, loftiest; of the lowest, meanest, obscurest, vilest, and most pitiful. He knows no medium, for enthusiasm is the soul of poetry. . . .

The word “tale,” like “story,” is used to refer in a very general way to any number of fictive narratives. More specifically, however, a tale is often characterized by fantasy: characters and events that are incredible, if not downright otherworldly. When you think of tales, think of ghost or adventure stories told around a campfire.

No doubt this is where many tall tales and fairy tales began, for tales are one of our oldest kinds of stories. It’s important to note that tales are fast paced and very short, touching upon the highlights of action and spending little time on character development or complicated character relations. This is due, most likely, to their “campfire” origins: the tale had to keep a wide range of listeners interested, so it did not bother with the kind of sophisticated developments we find in short stories and novels much later.

Although tales are primarily for entertainment, they do serve secondary functions. Tall tales, like the one about┬áPaul Bunyan, often serves the country’s chauvinism (patriotism or pride), advertising certain native virtues in an exaggerated fashion; and the fairy tale usually suggests a lesson. At the end of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, Little Red says, “I’ll never wander off into the forest as long as I live,” which makes an interesting statement about the storyteller’s (and that culture’s) notion of the woman’s/girl’s place in the world.

EXAMPLE of a tall tale of mythic proportions, based on the legendary abilities of Davey Crockett, as narrated by Davey himself supposedly:

On January morning it was so all screwen cold that the forest trees were stiff and they couldn’t shake, and the very daybreak froze fast as it was trying to dawn. The tinder box in my cabin would no more ketch fire than a sunk raft at the bottom of the sea.
Well, seein’ daylight war so far behind time I thought creation war in a fair way for freezen fast: so, thinks I, I must strike a little fire from my fingers, light my pipe, an’ travel out a few leagues, and see about it. Then I brought my knuckles together like two thunderclouds, but the sparks froze up afore I could begin to collect ’em, so out I walked, whistlin’ “Fire in the mountains!” as I went along in three double quick time.
Well, arter [after] I had walked about twenty miles up the Peak o’ Day and Daybreak Hill I soon discovered what war the matter. The airth had actually friz [frozen] fast on her axes, and couldn’t turn around; the sun had got jammed between two cakes o’ ice under the wheels, an’ thar he had been shinin’ an’ workin’ to get loose till he friz fast in his cold sweat.

C r e a t i o n! thought I, this ar the toughest sort of suspension, an’ it mustn’t be endured. Somethin’ must be done, or human creation is done for. It war then so anteluvian an’ premature cold that my upper and lower teeth an’ tongue war all collapsed together as tight as a friz oyster; but I took a fresh twenty pound bear off my back that I’d picked up on my road, and beat the animal agin the ice till the hot ile [oil] began to walk out on him at all sides.
I then took an’ held him over the airth’s axes an’ squeezed him till I’d thawed ’em loose, poured about a ton on’t over the sun’s face, give the airth’s cog wheel one kick backward till I got the sun loose whistled “Push along, keep movin’!” an’ in about fifteen seconds the airth gave a grunt, an’ began movin’. The sun walked up beautiful, salutin’ me with sich a wind o’ gratitude that it made me sneeze. I lit my pipe by the blaze o’ his top knot, shouldered my bear, an’ walked home, introducin’ people to the fresh daylight with a piece of sunrise in my pocket. (from American Humor by Constance Rourke)

EXAMPLE of an Arabic folktale, “The Story of the Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths,” (attributed to Jorge Luis Borges) which serves as something of a parable:

Men worthy of credence (though Allah knows more) relate that in the early days there was a king of the islands of Babylon who gathered together his architects and magicians and ordered them to construct a labyrinth so puzzling and subtle that the wisest men would never venture to enter it while those who did would lose themselves.

This work constituted a scandal for confusion and wonder are workings proper to God and not to man. With the┬ápassage of time, a king of the Arabs visited the court, and the king of Babylon (to make mock of his visitor’s simplicity) had him enter the labyrinth, where he wandered in shamed confusion until the fall of day. He called for divine help, and found the door. No word of complaint escaped his lips, but he told the king of Babylon that in Arabia he possessed a better labyrinth and that, if God so willed, he would show it to him some day.

He went back then to Arabia, along with his captains and governors. Presently he returned and ravaged the kingdom of Babylon in such a thoroughgoing way that its forts were battered down, its people broken, and the king himself taken prisoner. He tied him on a swift camel and told him: “Oh king of time and of substance and cipher of the century! In Babylon you wanted to lose me in a bronze labyrinth of many stairs, doors, and walls. Now the All Powerful has deemed it propitious for me to show you mine, where there are no stairs to climb, nor doors to force, nor weary galleries to wander, nor walls to block your way.”

Thereupon he had him unbound and abandoned in the middle of the desert, where the Babylonian died of hunger and thirst.

Glory be to Him who does not die.