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What Length Is A Short Story?

How Long is a Short Story?

How long before a story is short? It sounds like a brain teaser, but the question is asked by many aspiring short story writers – what is the right length for my short story?

Of course, the answer will be different depending on the author, the story and the intended publication. But even though there isn’t a single solution to creating the perfect story length, there are a few consistent ways to decide how long a short story should be.

What is a Short Story?

A short story is a work of fiction that is relatively quick to read. That’s about the only thing that is set in stone – while most short stories focus on a single plot line, with few characters, through a short space of time, other short stories might be more complicated.

Authors might use a short story format to explore an interesting character, or to quickly set up a world for a storyline to play out. Short stories come in a wide range of genres, although some genres are more popular for short stories than others.

More than the length or genre, the most important part of a short story is the impression it has on the reader in a short amount of time. The author has to find the sweet spot between carefully choosing their words and telling a meaningful, impacting story that will stay with the reader.

Story Length

Of course, there are many opinions on the correct word counts for each classification of story length – however, the following types of story length are based on generally accepted word counts:

  • Microfiction: Up to 100 words

There is a very famous piece of microfiction attributed to Ernest Hemingway – legend has it that in order to win a bet, he wrote a story using only six words:

 “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Microfiction (sometimes called microflash) is extremely difficult to write well, but there is a market for this story length. Publishers can easily fit microfiction onto a page, making it desirable for some publications.

  • Flash fiction: 100 to 1,000 words

Flash fiction delivers humour, romance or fantasy in a bite-sized story. Often found in magazines and online publications, flash fiction is a snapshot of a story that can be included on a page and quickly consumed by the reader.

  • Short story: 500 to 7,500 words

The most common word count for a short story falls within this range. Each publication will have its own preference, but 7,500 words is a widely accepted upper limit. That being said, others consider any work less than 10,000 words to be a short story.

Once an author exceeds 10,000 words, they have left the “short story” grouping and are creating a novelette (7,500 to 25,000 words), a novella (10,000 to 70,000 words) or a novel (50,000 words or more). Each of these word lengths have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are unlikely to achieve the convenient length and punchy impact of a short story.

Choosing a Length

Obviously, there’s a lot of leeway in how long a story can be and still classify as a short story – a work of 500 words and another of 7,500 words are both short stories, but are likely to be very different.

There are other factors to think about in order to decide the right length for a storyline. Some aspects to consider when deciding the right length are:

  • How long does my story take to tell? It sounds simple, but it’s really important – a story should use as many words as it needs to tell the tale. Lengthy stories might need a sharp eye to cut out unnecessary passages, and authors writing stories on the shorter side have to pay special attention to setting the scene and how they develop characters.

But ultimately, the story should be as long as it needs to be – no more, no less.

  • Is it likely to get published? Some short story lengths have wider appeal to a range of different publications. For many short story publications and competitions, a submission of over 3,500 words will have less chance of being accepted.

If the short story isn’t specifically written with a publishing destination in mind, it might be helpful to keep it on the shorter side to increase its appeal.

  • Does it meet publishing guidelines? If the story is written with a specific destination in mind, the publication or competition will have rules that the author should stick to in order to increase the likelihood of acceptance.

Publishers and competitions will almost always have submission guidelines available, and the word count is an important factor that decides whether or not a story will make the cut.

  • Can it be read in a single sitting? Edgar Allen Poe described the ideal short story length as one that is able to be read in a single sitting, and it’s a helpful concept for the author to keep in mind.

Modern readers are often time poor and reading on mobile devices, so a short story that is gripping but can be quickly consumed is likely to find a wide audience.

Creating Short Stories

The most basic definition of a short story is a work of fiction that is between 500 to 7,500 words long, but there are many other factors that can influence the exact number of words included in a short story.

Short stories have to keep the attention of their readers. They have to fit in well with the publication they are destined for, meeting word counts and other criteria.  They have to leave an impression on their readers. And of course, they have to be worth reading.

If a story is well told, it will have appeal regardless of the length. Creating a short story is an excellent way to provide readers with an easily consumable piece of fiction that draws them in and leaves an impression.

Really, the perfect short story length is however long it takes to accomplish that feat.

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