Writing and Shit – part 14 – Are you writing a story or a tale?


Warning: The picture I am about to draw is in crayon rather than in single hair brushstrokes. However, the overall picture is the important thing, and even more so where you appear in it. (And Mr But will have plenty of opportunities to speak up.)

When I say ‘story’, in this context, I mean ‘short story’.


Tales are older than short stories. If you look back to some of our earliest texts, you can find tales – there are tales in the Bible. The tale of Jonah and the whale, for example. There are tales upon tales in Homer. Every culture has its folk tales. Some anthologies of short stories, wishing to go a long way into the past, include episodes from the Mahabarata or the Kalevala. Australian aboriginals and Native Americans had tales – they did not have short stories.

Short stories have a much shorter history. The most significant figure in the form was the Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). He wrote what are recognisably modern short stories. By modern I mean, right now, that they could be submitted to a magazine today without seeming entirely weird or outdated. There are other, earlier, writers:

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)

Henry James (1843-1916)

Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)

All are important; all should be tracked down and read. (Henry James is my favourite.)


A tale is likely to be quite brief. The people in it will make decisions based on practical concerns (I need something to eat, I need to kill the monster) rather than psychological complexities.

Tales have morals, short stories don’t.

Tales have simple characters who may be limited to one or two distinguishing features – the youngest son, brave.

The easiest way to tell a tale and a story apart is simply to tell them – tell them to a friend in a bar, or on a train journey.

A tale, like a joke or a good anecdote, is easy to transport. A short story is far more stuck on the page.

If I begin with Once upon a time… and tell my sons the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, complete with path, flowers, Big Bad Wolf, Granny, big eyes, ears and teeth, and Huntsman with axe, I have – as much as is possible – told Little Red Riding Hood. I haven’t told a particular version, but my sons can’t turn round to me and say, You didn’t tell us Little Red Riding Hood.

If I memorise – in Russian – Chekhov’s ‘Lady with a Little Dog’, and recite it mostly accurately but miss out a single sentence from towards the end, I have not told ‘Lady with a Little Dog’.


One of the most crucial moments, for making a distinction between tales and stories, comes at the climax of Little Red Riding Hood. When Little Red Riding Hood is standing at the end of the bed, looking at the Wolf who has eaten her Granny, she says, What big eyes you have!

And the Wolf, and the children listening, and most likely the adults too – everyone choruses along –

All the better to see you with.

This happens again with All the better to hear you with! And even more with ALL THE BETTER TO EAT YOU WITH!

In the short story, there is no equivalent of this joining in on the chorus. The idea that a character would speak in this rhythm, doing three rounds of call and response, is anathema to the short story. It’s not naturalistic. Fairy-tales are dominated by threes. Short story writers, if they discovered this tendency to triplicate within a story, would do their best to disrupt or disguise it. They wouldn’t want to get caught out having unwittingly written a tale.

There are many successful contemporary writers who, essentially, write long tales. One example would be Neil Gaiman. He is very open about having been influenced by writers such as Kipling and Saki – writers who weren’t averse to the tale-like good story, climaxing in a final twist, and leaving the reader with a moral.

You are unlikely to finish a Neil Gaiman story and find yourself asking the questions, What just happened there? or, even more so, Did anything just happen there?

A short story version of my earlier example ‘The Party’ would quite possibly end with an equivalent of the sentence, ‘Trevor continued to look at the tree in his back garden.’ The writing may try to be finer than this, ‘As Trevor looked out, the leaves shivered in the breeze.’ Essentially, the writer is saying to the reader, Now, over to you. It’s up to you to get to the bottom of this one. You’re on your own.

Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is a famous example of a short story in which very little seems to happen. Once you pay properly close attention, you realise that you are witnessing a great, merciless battle between a man and a woman. Once, also, you realise that short stories – by only writing about the small bit of time they write about – leave it to stand for the rest of the people’s lives, you see that this conversation in a minor railway station in the middle of nowhere is genuinely hellish. Neither the man nor the woman can expect any real happiness for one another, or from life. There is very little action, lots of dialogue, but the reader gets everything they need. However, they have to work for it in a way a tale would never expect them to.

Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who were very unhappy. The woman was pregnant with the man’s child, but the man did not want her to have the baby.

That makes for a great short story but a poor tale.


This distinction I have made between stories and tales is very important because you must not slip in an uncontrolled way between writing a story and writing a tale. It will undermine what you’re trying to do both in terms of being real and having meaning.

If you tie bows, and finish off every story with a neat moral, you will never be taken all that seriously as a writer. You won’t get published in the New Yorker.

There will be many other websites and magazines open to you. You may achieve a vast audience. But you will have chosen to take sides… You will be seen as doing something rather old-fashioned, and dealing in moral certainties that are no longer available to us.

Literary aside: About what you do, you have a choice; about the cultural context in which you do it, you’re a little lamb lost in the deep dark woods.

As I’ve said, a tale is what people would call a good story. It is likely to have obvious twists that the listener or reader will see coming.

Most of all, a tale will tend to suggest a fairly simply moral. The moral of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is When your parents tell you not to step off the path, don’t step off the path.

More simply put, Obey authority, obey rules.

Mr But: If you were really straining, though, you might force a moral out of Chekhov’s ‘Lady With a Little Dog’. Something like Don’t start a holiday romance with anyone unless you are prepared to divorce your partner and marry your new lover. Or, Don’t flirt with people, you may end up having to marry them.

I’ll grant you that. But you are really straining.

More recent short stories, particularly of the sort called epiphany stories, contain even less that could be retold in a bar. At the conclusion, if they made it that far, the listener would most likely say, But nothing really happened.

The history of the development of the short story is a movement further and further away from the tale. And what counts, in the tale, as something happening has generally been left behind. It is not enough, in a tale, for a character to realise they have something they need to realise, they just don’t yet know what it is. Yet this could easily make the basis of a short story.

Short stories have redefined what it is that counts as an event, as something happening. James Joyce’s stories in Dubliners are often about bafflement, hesitation, wimping out. Characters are taken to the brink of defining themselves through an act, then back away – and so define themselves through that retreat.

It was Chekhov who said, ‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

This has become known as Chekhov’s gun. But many contemporary short story writers would find the fictional firing of the gun, lethally or non-lethally, far too crass. Their story would allow the gun to hang there, unfired, and would turn out to be about inner, psychological violence.

The short story is an art form. It is a written form, one that can be read aloud but which begins on the page. It relies upon very accurate retransmission – through anthologies, books, web pages. It can be performed but the performance isn’t the story; the story is only the particular sequence of words on the page.

If you have a look at Virginia Woolf’s stories (‘The Mark on the Wall’, ‘Kew Gardens’) or, more recently, Claire-Louise Bennett (in the collection POND), you’ll see that they contain nothing like the ordered events of a tale. They’re far more like waking up to find yourself inside someone’s wandering mind.

Exercise: Ask yourself. Honestly. Do you find yourself writing short stories or tales? Look back at the definitions.

Quite often, stories by writers – and I am including novels – begin as short stories. They are realistic, in that the details of the person’s life show they live in a world governed by the laws of physics but subject to chance. The person has minor, seemingly irrelevant details about them – details of appearance or behaviour – that we are given but that don’t play a clear part in the working out of the story. They aren’t merely the third son, ambitious. They have grey eyebrows, slightly peaked, and the left one is higher than the right.

But as the actions follow one another, and the writer starts to worry that the mere describing of the actions – in the order they happen – isn’t enough, stories often turn into tales. While quest for a satisfying final sentence, the writer begins to shape a moral. In the first version of ‘The Party’, Trevor started as fairly realistic but ended up being the example of a tale-style moral, Don’t get above your station.

One thing I’ve just said is that people who appear in tales tend to be much simpler and less psychologically deep than people who appear in short stories – and even more so, in novels.

Exercise: Look back at your story start. Is it a story start or is it desperate to turn into a tale? How could you change it so that it was definitely a short story?


One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 14 – Are you writing a story or a tale?

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 13 – Exactly how not to begin your short story | tobylitt

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