A. What fiction is
Fiction (from the Latin fictio, “a shaping, a counterfeiting”) is a name for stories not entirely factual, but at least partially shaped, made up, imagined. It is true that in some fiction, such as historical novel, a writer draws upon factual information in presenting scenes, events, and characters. But the factual information in a historical novel, unlike that in a history book, is of secondary importance.
Fiction as we know it today is considered to be a relatively new genre compared to poetry and drama. The tradition of fiction started with myth and legend and allegory. But the fictional characters in these imaginary worlds were mostly one-dimensional abstractions, personified as Love, Greed, War, or even Faith. The evolution from allegory to novel (and short story), from the sermon about an abstraction in human guise to the story of the individual whose personal experience might have universal application, took a long time.
B. Fable and tale
Modern literary fiction in English has been dominated by two forms: the novel and the short story. The two have many elements in common. Perhaps we will be able to define the short story more meaningfully---for it has traits more essential than just a particular length---if first, for comparison, we consider some related varieties of fiction: the fable and the tale. Ancient forms whose origins date back to the time of word-of-mouth storytelling, the fable and the tale are relatively simple in structure; in them we can plainly see elements also found in the short story (and in novel).
Fable is a brief story that sets forth some pointed statement of truth. For in fable everything leads directly to the moral, or message, sometimes stated at the end. The characters in a fable may be talking animals, inanimate objects, or people and supernatural beings. Whoever they may be, these characters are merely sketched, not greatly developed.
The name tale (from the Old English talu, “speech”) is sometimes applied to any strory, whether short or long, true or fictitious. Tale being a more evocative name than story, writers sometimes call their stories “tales” as if to imply something handed down from the past. But defined in a more limited sense, a tale is a story, usually short, that sets forth strange and wonderful events in more or less bare summary, without detailed character-drawing. “Tale” is pretty much synonymous with “yarn,” for it implies a story in which goal is revelation of the marvelous rather than revelation of character
Plot is the arrangement of events in a story, or the structure of the action. The action in a plot is usually progressive because one force acts upon another. Plot begins with an exposition: the opening portion that sets the scene (if any), introduces the main characters, tells us what happened before the story opened, and provides any other background...