SHORT STORIES CLASSIFIED
SHORT STORIES CLASSIFIEDEdit
This is from an old book on short story writing needs more modernizing.
The treatment demanded by any particular story depends more upon its
class than upon the tale itself; a story which recounts an actual
occurrence is much less exacting than one which attempts to depict
manners; and, in general, the more the writer relies on his art, the
more difficult is his task. It is therefore both possible and profitable
to separate short stories into definite groups and to consider them
collectively rather than as units. This classification is based chiefly
upon the necessity of a plot, the purpose or aim of the narrative, and
the skill and care required for its successful treatment. It is crude
and arbitrary from a literary standpoint, for a good short story is
capable of being listed under several different classes, but it serves
our practical purpose. Each story is placed according to its dominant
class; and the classes are arranged progressively from the simplest to
the most difficult of treatment. The examples are presented only as
definite illustrations; there is no attempt to classify all short
stories, or all the stories of any particular author.
is the relation, in an interesting and literary form, of
some simple incident or stirring fact. It has no plot in the sense that
there is any problem to unravel, or any change in the relation of the
characters; it usually contains action, but chiefly accidents or odd
happenings, which depend on their intrinsic interest, without regard to
their influence on the lives of the actors.
(_a_) It is often a genuine _True Story_, jealously observant of facts,
and embellished only to the extent that the author has endeavored to
make his style vivid and picturesque
(_b_) It may, however, be an _Imaginative Tale_, which could easily
happen, but which is the work of the author’s imagination. It is a
straightforward narration of possible events; if it passes the bounds of
probability, or attempts the utterly impossible, it becomes a _Story of
Ingenuity_. It has no love element and no plot; and
its workmanship is loose
THE MORAL STORYEdit
, in spite of the beautiful examples left us by
Hawthorne, is usually too baldly didactic to attain or hold a high place
in literature. Its avowed purpose is to preach, and, as ordinarily
written, preach it does in the most determined way. Its plot is usually
just sufficient to introduce the moral. It is susceptible of a high
literary polish in the hands of a master; but when attempted by a novice
it is apt to degenerate into a mess of moral platitudes.
(_a_) _The Fable_ makes no attempt to disguise its didactic purpose, but
publishes it by a final labeled "Moral, " which epitomizes the lesson it
conveys. In _Fables_ the characters are often animals, endowed with all
the attributes of men. It early lost favor because of its bald
didacticism, and for the last century has been practiced only
occasionally. To-day it is used chiefly for the purpose of burlesque and
satire, as in George Ade’s "Fables in Slang. " AEsop is of course the
immortal example of this sort of story.
(_b_) The _Story with a Moral_ attempts to sugar-coat its sermon with a
little narrative. It sticks rather closely to facts, and has a slight
plot, which shows, or is made to show, the consequences of drinking,
stealing, or some other sin. Usually it is either brutally realistic or
absurdly exaggerated; but that it can be given literary charm is proved
by Hawthorne’s use of it. Maria Edgeworth is easily the "awful example"
of this class, and her stories, such as "Murad the Unlucky" and "The
Grateful Negro, " are excellent illustrations of how _not_ to write. Many
of Hawthorne’s tales come under this head, especially "Lady Eleanor’s
Mantle, " "The Ambitious Guest, " and "Miss Bullfrog. " The stories of Miss
Wilkins usually have a strong moral element, but they are better classed
in a later division. Contemporary examples of this style
of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and
(_c_) _The Allegory_ is the only really literary form of the _Moral
Story_, and the only one which survives to-day. It has a strong moral
purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so
that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its
lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies
or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men.
Examples: Hawthorne’s "The Birthmark, " "Rappaccini’s Daughter, " and
THE WEIRD STORYEdit
owes its interest to the innate love of the
supernatural or unexplainable which is a part of our complex human
nature--the same feeling which prompts a group of children to beg for
"just one more" ghost story, while they are still shaken with the terror
of the last one. It may have a definite plot in which supernatural
beings are actors; but more often it is slight in plot, but contains a
careful psychological study of some of the less pleasant emotions.
(_a_) The _Ghost Story_ usually has a definite plot, in which the ghost
is an actor. The ghost may be a "really truly" apparition, manifesting
itself by the conventional methods, and remaining unexplained to the
end, as in Irving’s "The Spectre Bridegroom, " and Kipling’s "The Phantom
’Rickshaw;" or it may prove to be the result of a superstitious mind
dwelling upon perfectly natural occurrences, as in Irving’s "The Legend
of Sleepy Hollow, " and Wilkins’ "A Gentle Ghost. " It requires art
chiefly to render it plausible; particularly in the latter case, when
the mystery must be carefully kept up until the denouement.
(_b_) The _Fantastic Tale_ treats of the lighter phases of the
supernatural. Its style might be well described as whimsical, its
purpose is to amuse by means of playful fancies, and it usually exhibits
a delicate humor. The plot is slight and subordinate. Examples:
Hawthorne’s "A Select Party, " "The Hall of Fantasy, " and "Monsieur du
Miroir;" and most of our modern fairy tales.
(_c_) The _Study in Horror_ was first made popular by Poe. . It is unhealthy and morbid, full of a terrible charm if well done, but tawdry and disgusting if bungled. It
requires a daring imagination, a full and facile vocabulary, and a keen
sense of the ludicrous to hold these two in check. The plot is used only
to give the setting to the story. Most any of Poe’s tales would serve as
an illustration, but "The Pit and the Pendulum, " and "The Fall of the
House of Usher" are particularly apt.
THE CHARACTER STUDYEdit
is a short story in which the chief interest
rests in the development and exposition of human character. It may treat
of either a type or an individual. Good character delineation is one of
the surest proofs of a writer’s literary ability.
(_a_) When the character depicted is inactive the resultant work is not
really a story. It usually has no plot, and is properly a _Sketch_, in
which the author makes a psychological analysis of his subject. It
inclines to superficiality and is liable to degenerate into a mere
to catch striking details and to present them vividly and interestingly.
Examples: Hawthorne’s "Sylph Etherege" and "Old Esther Dudley;" Poe’s
"The Man of the Crowd;" James’ "Greville Fane" and "Sir Edmund Orme;"
Stevenson’s "Will o’ the Mill;" Wilkins’ "The Scent of the Roses" and "A
Village Lear. "
(_b_) When the character described is active we have a _Character Study_
proper, built upon a plot which gives the character opportunity to work
out his own personality before us by means of speech and action. The
plot is subordinated to the character sketching. The psychological
analysis is not presented by the author in so many words, but is deduced
by the reader from his observation of the character. Such studies
constitute one of the highest art forms of the short story, for the
characters must live on the printed page. The short stories of Henry
James and of Miss Wilkins could almost be classed _in toto_ under this
head; Miss Wilkins’ characters are usually types, while those of James
are more often individual, though rather unusual. Other good examples
are Hawthorne’s "Edward Randolph’s Portrait;" Irving’s "The Devil and
Tom Walker, " and "Wolfert Weber;" Stevenson’s "Markheim" and "The Brown
Box;" and Davis’ "Van Bibber, " as depicted in the several stories of
"Van Bibber and Others. "
Notice that in both subdivisions nearly every title embodies a reference
to the character described, showing that the author intentionally set
out to sketch a character.
THE PARABLE OF THE TIMESEdit
is a short story which aims to present a
vivid picture of our own times, either to criticize some existing evil,
or to entertain by telling us something of how "the other half" of the
world lives. It is in a sense a further development of _The Tale_, though it has a more definite plot. It is the most favored form of
the short story to-day, and its popularity is responsible for a mess of
inane commonplace and bald realism that is written by amateurs, who
think they are presenting pen pictures of life. For since its matter is
gathered from our everyday lives, it requires some degree of skill to
make such narratives individual and interesting.
(_a_) The _Instructive Story_ of this class may be further subdivided as
(1) that which puts present day problems in concrete form, with no
attempt at a solution; and (2) that which not only criticizes, but
attempts also to correct. In either case, it aims to reform by
education; it deals with actual problems of humanity rather than with
abstract moral truths; and it seeks to amuse always, and to reform if
possible. It must not be confused with the _Moral Story_ of Class II.
Octave Thanet writes this style of story almost exclusively, and any of
her work selected at random would be a good illustration; her "Sketches
of American Types" would be listed under (1), and such stories as "The
Scab" and "Trusty No. 49" under (2). Under (1) would come also Brander
Matthews’ "Vignettes of Manhattan;" and under (2) Edward Everett Hale’s
"The Man Without a Country" and "Children of the Public. "
(_b_) The most usual story of this class is the _Story of To-day_, which
uses present day conditions as a background, and which endeavors only to
amuse and interest the reader. Naturally, however, since the scenes and
persons described must be new to the reader, such a story is also
educating and broadening in its influence. Its plot may seem trivial
when analyzed, but it is selected with a view more to naturalness than
to strength or complexity. Here we should list nearly all of our modern
so-called "society stories, " and "stories of manners. " Any of Richard
Harding Davis’ short stories will serve as an excellent illustration,
and most of the stories in current periodicals belong in the same
THE STORY OF INGENUITYEdit
It might be called the "fairy tale of the grown-up, " for its
interest depends entirely upon its appeal to the love for the marvelous
which no human being ever outgrows. It requires fertility of invention,
vividness of imagination, and a plausible and convincing style. Yet it
is an easy sort of story to do successfully, since ingenuity will atone
for many technical faults; but it usually lacks serious interest and is
short lived. Poe was the originator and great exemplar of the _Story of
Ingenuity_, and all of his tales possess this cleverness in some degree.
(_a_) The _Story of Wonder_ has little plot. It is generally the vivid
Description of some amazing discovery (Poe’s "Some Words with a Mummy, "
Hale’s "The Spider’s Eye"), impossible invention (Adee’s "The Life
Magnet, " Mitchell’s "The Ablest Man in the World"), astounding adventure
(Stockton’s "Wreck of the Thomas Hyde, " Stevenson’s "House with Green
Blinds"), or a vivid Description of what might be (Benjamin’s "The End
of New York, " Poe’s "The Domain of Arnheim"). It demands unusual
(_b_) The _Detective Story_ requires the most complex plot of any type
of short story, for its interest depends solely upon the solution of the
mystery presented in that plot. It arouses in the human mind much the
same interest as an algebraic problem, which it greatly resembles. Poe
wrote the first, and probably the best, one in "The Murders in the Rue
Morgue;" his "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Gold Bug" are other
excellent examples. Doyle, in his "Sherlock Holmes" stories, is a worthy
successor of Poe.
In _Detective Stories_, the plot is all-important, for the
interest depends entirely upon the unraveling of some tangle; but
even here it must contain but a single idea, though that may be
rather involved. Such stories are really much simpler than they
appear, for their seeming complexity consists in telling the story
backwards, and so reasoning from effect to cause, rather than vice
versa as in the ordinary tale. The plot itself is simple enough, as
may be proved by working backward through Poe's "The Murders in the
Rue Morgue. " This is, by the way, a method of plot-making which is
often, and incorrectly, employed by novices in the construction of
any story. It has been aptly called "building the pyramid from the
apex downward. " It results from an exaggerated conception of the
importance of the plot. But it is not so much _what_ the characters
do that interests us, but _how_ they do it.
THE HUMOROUS STORYEdit
almost belongs in the category of _Stories of
Ingenuity_, so largely does it depend upon the element of the unusual;
but for that fact it should have been listed earlier, because it has
little care for plot. Indeed, these stories are the freest of all in
their disregard for conventions; with them it is "anything to raise a
laugh, " and the end is supposed to justify the means. In general they
are of transient interest and crude workmanship, little fitted to be
called classics; but Mark Twain, at least, has shown us that humor and
art are not incompatible.
(_a_) The simplest form is the _Nonsense Story_, as it may be justly
called. Usually it has the merest thread of plot, but contains odd or
grotesque characters whose witty conversation furnishes all the
amusement necessary. If the characters do act they have an unfortunate
tendency to indulge in horse play. The work of John Kendrick Bangs well
illustrates this type of story. His books, "The House Boat on the Styx"
and "The Pursuit of the House Boat, " are really only collections of
short stories, for each chapter can be considered as a whole.
(_b_) _The Burlesque_ has a plot, but usually one which is absurdly
impossible, or which is treated in a burlesque style. The amusement is
derived chiefly from the contrast between the matter and the method of
its presentation. Most of Stockton’s stories are of this type: notably
his "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Mark Twain, too, usually writes in this
vein, as in "The Jumping Frog" and "The Stolen White Elephant. "
THE DRAMATIC STORYEdit
is the highest type of the short story. It
requires a definite but simple plot, which enables the characters to act
out their parts. In its perfect form it is the "bit of real life" which
it is the aim of the short story to present. It is the story shorn of
all needless verbiage, and told as nearly as possible in the words and
actions of the characters themselves; and it possesses a strong climax.
Therefore it demands the most careful and skillful workmanship, from its
conception to its final polishing. It is the most modern type of the
(_a_) The short story has _Dramatic Form_ when the author’s necessary
comments correspond to the stage directions of the drama. Such a story
is, in fact, a miniature drama, and is often capable of being acted just
as it stands. It has a definite plot, but it is developed by dialogue as
frequently as by action. It is the extreme of the modern tendency toward
dramatic narrative, and is just a little too "stagey" and artificial to
be a perfect short story. It is, however, in good literary standing and
in good favor with the public, and it is most excellent practice for the
tyro, for in it he has to sink himself completely in his characters.
Examples: Hope’s "The Dolly Dialogues;" Kipling’s "The Story of the
Gadsbys;" and Howells’ one act parlor plays, like "The Parlor Car, " "The
Register, " "The Letter, " and "Unexpected Guests. "
(_b_) A short story has _Dramatic Effect_ when it deals with a single
crisis, conveys a single impression, is presented chiefly by the actors
themselves, and culminates in a single, perfect climax. It may, or may
not, be capable of easy dramatization. It is less artificial than the
story of pure _Dramatic Form_, but is just as free from padding and
irrelevant matter, and just as vivid in effect. It allows of greater art
and finish, for the writer has wider freedom in his method of
presentation. Examples: Poe’s "’Thou Art the Man!’" and "Berenice;"
James’ "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Passionate Pilgrim;" Wilkins’
"A New England Nun" and "Amanda and Love;" Stevenson’s "The Isle of the
Voices;" and Irving’s "The Widow and Her Son" and "Rip Van Winkle. " But,
indeed, every good short story belongs in this class, which is not so
much a certain type of the short story, as the "honor class" to which
each story seeks admittance.