Ok, so I admit that I am fascinated by history but I don’t spend much time studying it, usually. However, whenever I come across a slice of historical information I find myself immersed in the exotic customs, cultures, and trends of the past. The history of the short story is fascinating and spans a great many centuries. The form really hasn’t changed all that much in all those years either. Then again, it has changed a great deal. Hopefully you’ll better understand what I mean by the end of this post.
Stories probably began with the earliest humans. I like to imagine prehistoric man communicating in charades and grunts telling of the latest mammoth they took down and how it fed a whole family for a year. It’s a fancy, I know. Actually, it would make a really cool story!
Originally, all stories were delivered orally. Perhaps with charades and grunts, but in later years, as language developed they were told with words. Some of these stories were passed down for generations in an oral tradition for many cultures.
From 9th century BC stories that form The Book of One Thousand and One Nights were collected. These include tales that have been told and retold such as Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. These entertaining romps, into the lives of exciting people, captivated audiences. In the 14th century the compilation of the stories built around itself another story, that of Scheherazade, the Persian queen who enthralled her husband for one thousand and one nights by telling stories. In this way she staved off her death, for the man she had married had been betrayed by his unfaithful first wife and, in their turn, he married virgins who he beheaded the day after the consummation of their marriage to be certain of their fidelity. Perhaps Scheherazade was the first feminist but she must have been a wonderful story teller.
Later, around 6th century BC stories such as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Boy who Cried Wolf and others of Aesop’s Fables (The Kindle Edition is free!) became traditional oral stories. They are sweet in their simplicity and deliver a moral lesson to readers. Perhaps their adherence to the “to entertain and to teach” rule is a large part of why the stories are still told and retold thousands of years later. They share a message that still speaks to modern man in a meaningful way.
However, it was centuries later before German inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, invented the printing press in 1440 allowing for economic replication of popular stories. One of the earliest books to be published was that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in 1478.
In the 19th Century AD, writers tended to deliver stories (particularly plays) that followed Aristotle’s The Three Unities (350BC) principle. That is, that each story should have:
- a main action or plot that drove the story forward with no tangents or subplots;
- a single location or setting or comprise of similarly limited position in space; and
- a limitation of time that declares the happenings in the story take no more than the course of 24 hours.
These rules do create an interesting groundwork for the limited word count available to the short story.
The strictness and inflexibility of The Three Unities, however, experienced a dramatic shift following the First World War (1914-1918). People began to acknowledge the chaos and disorder of the world, and this lead to a tendency, particularly in the arts, to portray the fragmented, discontinuity of the world. Writers began to experiment with new techniques and styles and writing became less structured.
Today, we have the opportunity of drawing from the styles of storytelling across all our known history. Two structures of short story are prominent: that of the traditional, linear, and consequential story; and that of experimental, discontinuous, and fragmented story.
Which stories or writers of the past have been your favourite? Did they follow traditional or experimental structures? Which style of writing do you prefer to do yourself? Have you experimented with trying other writing styles and techniques? What did you learn about yourself and your writing?