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What Is the Difference between a Fable and a Short Story?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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A fable and a short story both have plots with concise a development of characters and theme, but the objective of the fable is to present the reader with a moral lesson. A fable always uses an allegory to make its point. Short stories are typically longer than fables and may express a moral lesson or use an allegory, though these are not necessary components of this form of writing.

A major difference between a fable and a short story lies in the moral lesson a fable delivers to its readers. For example, in The Fox and the Crow by Aesop, a fox dupes a crow into opening its beak and dropping a piece of cheese on the ground. The fox achieves this by telling the crow it is noble, gracious and beautiful. When the crow opens its beak to answer, the cheese falls on the ground and the fox gets to eat it. The moral of this fable is to be suspicious of flattery.

Allegory, or the use of symbols to impart lessons or make a point, is another important device always found in fables. Anyone could easily say, “Don’t trust people who flatter you because they may be trying to get something out of you.” Aesop chose instead to use the crafty fox and the conceited crow to illustrate this point and make the moral lesson memorable to his readers.

Both a fable and a short story get to the point quickly, with succinct character development and a focused theme. Fables, however, are often very short, which is why they are usually considered to be childhood reading. An English translation of The Fox and the Crow has only 121 words, although some fables are much longer.

Opinions vary about the length of a short story. Some say short stories have between 2,000 and 10,000 words, while others feel that anything over 5,000 words is a novella. Many claim that readers should be able to read a short story in one sitting, although some people obviously have longer attention spans than others.

A fable and a short story can both be written to inform and entertain readers, and both can make statements about life. A short story, however, does not necessarily take the moral high ground the way a fable does. Short stories invite readers to participate in a brief interlude of characters’ lives and draw conclusions about the outcome of a conflict.

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Discussion Comments
By NathanG — On Sep 23, 2011

@miriam98 - I love all of Aesop’s fables. It amazes me to realize that Aesop was himself a Greek slave and a writer of great stories.

It just goes to show you that wisdom can come from the lowliest of places. I think it was Aesop’s lowly station in life that gave him insight into the human condition and allowed him to put these observations into story form.

By miriam98 — On Sep 22, 2011

@GreenWeaver - I love fables, and you can’t deny the influence they’ve had in our modern discourse.

We still refer to them from time to time in our every day conversation. One of my favorites is The Story of Chicken Little. Some people say that it’s a story while others call it a fable. I belong to the latter group, because it has a clear moral lesson.

It hardly needs recounting here, because we’ve all heard it so many times. But I think of it anytime someone tries to throw me into a scare, whether that someone is the news media, a coworker, or whatever.

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for caution, but at other times people scream “the sky is falling” because they are simply trying to capitalize on the hype.

We should always plan prudently for good times and bad; then we won’t be moved by hype and portents of calamity. That’s my philosophy anyway.

By GreenWeaver — On Sep 22, 2011

One of my favorite fables is the Tortoise and the Hare. I love the message of this story because it really rings true in real life. People that work hard every day and work toward a goal are actually better off in the long run than people that may have additional advantages but for whatever reason do not take advantage of the resources that they have.

What is worse is when people that do have these advantages and feel that they can get by with just that. This happens a lot in situations in which you have kids that are gifted but unmotivated to learn and those that are not gifted but are hungry to learn.

The student that is hungry to learn will always outperform the gifted student that is unmotivated. It is a good lesson to teach children because often children compare themselves and feel inadequate if someone runs faster or excels more in a subject than they do.

I always tell my kids that it is not how smart you are, but how hard you work that will determine your success in life. The message in the Tortoise and the Hare really even out the playing field and allow children to have hope that they can also succeed if they tried hard enough.

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