Mao Dun, a famous Chinese writer, said, ‘a short story mainly captures a typical segment of life to illustrate a problem or a social phenomenon that is much broader and more complex than itself.’ This means that there is a limitation of the length of a short story, that its content cannot take place over a long period of time.
This literary form refers to a brief fictional prose narrative that is short in length, usually involving only a few characters who generally lack a development, and revolving around a main event. The plot of a short story is usually concise and compact, and the explanation of the incidents usually not being overstated or fully developed.
There are many kinds of short stories in the history of human literature: anecdotes, fables, tales, legends, etc, that share some similarities in term of literature. The short story is characterized by possessing five elements, and the author uses a lot of figure of speech and literary techniques to develop and narrate the story, which these attributes are fully presented by three famous writers. There are five elements that comprise the entirety of the content of a short story, including characters, setting, conflict, theme, and plot.
Characters can influence the reader’s understanding of the plot in many ways, because they are the narrators or experiencers of the story. Readers can learn about a character in various ways, such as through the author’s physical description, through the character’s dialogue, thoughts and confessions (The Five Elements of a Short Story, 2016). Generally, readers pay more attention to the protagonist and the antagonist, who are the principle characters and the whole story is centered on them.
The importance of setting is reflected in providing the context for the actions of the characters in the story. When the reader knows the time and place of the story, it is easier to understand what characters are doing and why (Hansen, 2019). Without the setting, the reader will be confused and not understand the story.
The conflict is a struggle between two people or things in a short story, with one side is the main character or the protagonist. Both external and internal conflicts may expose in a story, which can be the obstacles a character faces in the external world (society, morality, ethic, etc), or can be his or her emotional obstacles (feelings, emotions, illness) (What is Conflict in a Story, 2019). It reveals what the author is trying to convey to the reader. All the characters, plots and backgrounds serve the theme.
Plot is a pattern of events that develop from the interactions between characters, which also contains five elements: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion. The conflict involving in the plot makes a story emotionally engaging, and most importantly, the theme can be introduced through plots (Literary Terms, 2015). These five elements are indispensable for a short story that the lack of any of them make the story incomplete.
Figures of speech and other literary techniques make the story vivid and fascinating, helping the reader to create an image for what the story is describing. The common ones include metaphor and simile, which are designed to make a comparison; alliteration and hyperbole, which are used to provide a dramatic effect; idiom and proverb, which connect the story to the realistic background; personification and onomatopoeia, which bring the reader to the story personally, etc (Figurative Language, n.d,).
Figures of speech are considered the most common literary technique in writings. For example, “Time is money” is a widely known metaphor that compares time and money, but it does not literally mean that the amount of time can be measured by money. Instead, it encourages people to use time effectively as they are as valuable as money earned. Flashbacks, foreshadowing and symbolism are important literary techniques whose presence serves to emphasize or clarify plots in a short story, adding complexity and depth to the narrative, with the ultimate goal of leading to the theme. Flashbacks are usually inserted abruptly, bringing the reader back to past events rather than in chronological order, which readers can access almost all of the hidden information through the supplements. Foreshadowing provides the readers with hints about the future plot, which can be used directly or indirectly through symbols and omens. A proper-used foreshadowing always give its reader a sense of humor, fear, tension, excitement, doubt, or suspense and anticipation, that it encourages the readers to predict the plot by revealing clues, and revoke their interests to read on (Literary Terms, 2015). Symbolism is often used to give another interpretation beyond the normal meaning, which the symbolized object may be conventional such as interpreting white pigeon as the symbol of peace, or the symbol may have an unique interpretation that only being recognized in the story which it appears (Symbolism, 2013).
The use of figures of speech and literacy techniques make up a huge portion of the English language and have lasted for thousands of years, which still play an important role in almost all kinds of modern literature. Maupassant, O. Henry and Chekhov were among the world’s top three short story writers who used the literacy techniques proficiently and had a great influence on the world’s literature. All three were born in similar years, at a time when capitalism was showing many flaws in the late 19th century. The writing styles of the three writers are also very similar, that they all satirize the darkness and decadence of capitalism with humorous words, as well as people’s snobbish and naked relationship with money. These three writers wrote with limited space, a few characters and relatively simple backgrounds and events, reflecting an essence or value of a peculiar time period. Artistically, they are adept at capturing the ironic but philosophical drama of life (Froio, 2018). For example, in Chekhov’s Chameleon, there is only one incident in which a dog bites a man, and a scene in which a police solves a crime, involving only four characters. The plot development is extremely simple, however, the author focuses on describing the five ‘color changes’ of the police officer Orchumilov during the trial process, which subtly shows the extremely strong ironic effect. Maupassant’s The Savage Dama captures a small section of the Franco-Prussian war, in which the French people, together with the French government, rise up in revolt to express their patriotic feelings. The more valuable this short story shown is the profound revelation of the war’s harm to the people of the two countries (The Best Short Story Writers of All Time, 2019). To sum up, the language of these three writers’ short stories is accurate, clear and vivid; in the structure of the works, they connect all parts of the novel closely and logically, creating a legend in the history of literature.
In summary, the foundation of a successful and popular short story consists of five basic elements (characters, setting, conflict, theme, and plot) among which the flexible use of figures of speech and literary techniques ensures the fullness of the characters and the interest of the story, with the concise plot makes short stories easier to read and write. These factors have contributed together to the enduring popularity of the short story.