What Makes a Story a Fairy Tale or Short Story?
The term short story seems to encompass many literary forms, but the confusing truth is that a story that is short is not necessarily a short story. If brevity alone determined whether a narrative were a short story, all fairy tales would qualify. Instead, the two genres are distinct categories. When in doubt about whether to classify a text as a fairy tale or a short story, determine how it meets a few key criteria.
Fairy tales are for children, while short stories are for adults. The intended audience is not always obvious from the writing style alone, but other clues can help. One sign that a story is intended for children is a youthful protagonist, something many, but not all fairy tales feature. The most reliable indicator is the presence of a simple lesson. Short stories are rarely bluntly didactic; their themes tend to be subtler and more complex than those of fairy tales. Furthermore, a fairy tale's instruction, such as a warning not to speak to strangers, is only wise when applied to children.
Fairy tales are situated in a distant, but indefinite past. References to castles, dragons and princesses infuse some fairy tales with medievalism, but dates are never specific. This is compounded by the fact that fairy tales also neglect to mention their geographical settings. Even fairy tales that feature royalty avoid mentioning what region their monarchs rule. Short stories are not this vague. Even if an author does not make a point of specifying a story's setting, references to everyday life inevitably include mentions of technology that narrow down the possibilities.
Occasionally short story authors deliberately omit specific clues to a historical context, but these still differ from fairy tales. The short story form has a limited capacity for contextual information. While fairy tales frequently refer to characters' lifetimes, short stories enter at key moments in characters' lives and exit equally suddenly. Often the key drama of a short story occurs within a character's mind; James Joyce described such plots as epiphanies. Where fairy tales are vague, short stories are hyper-focused.
One of the reasons fairy tale settings remain mysterious while short stories' are decipherable is the genres' different degrees of realism. The glimpse a short story offers is usually of daily life and therefore of everyday date-specific objects, such as pocket watches, telephones and trains. Fairy tales do not always involve fairies, but they always have some equally magical element, including ogres, giants, witches and talking animals.
William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has many qualities of a fairy tale: a setting in a vague past, magical beings and an implied happy ending in the form of a wedding. However, the fact that it is Shakespearean means it cannot truly be a fairy tale. Fairy tales come from oral traditions, circulated aloud as community property long before they were recorded in print. This is why fairy tales exist in many different versions and why they are often impossible to attribute to individual authors. Short stories premiere in print, accompanied by authors' names and copyrights.
- Carson-Newman University; Dr. Wheeler's Website; Literary Terms and Definitions
- University of Pittsburg: Little Red Riding Hood
- Springfield Technical Community College: Fairy tales, Folklore, Myths and Legends
- The Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature: Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer
- The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory: J.A. Cuddon
Lily Carroll works for a non-profit children's literacy organization. She has worked as a college composition instructor and ESL tutor. She holds a Master of Arts in English from Mills College in Oakland.