How Long is a Short Story?
Everything you need to know about reading, writing, and editing short fiction.
Here’s a riddle that isn’t a riddle: when you want to read fiction but don’t have the time or energy for a novel, what can you pick up? The answer - short stories! Short stories are works of fiction significantly shorter in length than a novel that still depict a complete scene or story.
What you might not know is that there are lots of different kinds of short fiction! From the shortest sad story ever written to not-quite novels, short fiction is a compressed storytelling format that can help an author hone their plotting skills and sharpen their editorial knife.
But what qualifies as short fiction? How long is a short story, and what is the ideal short story length? Why does the distinction of word counts even matter?
Here are the answers to some of your most pressing short fiction questions and a few tips on how to start writing it for yourself.
Word count definitions
What makes a short story a short story?
Well, usually, it’s the fact that a complete narrative is told in the space of a small number of pages rather than an entire book. Short stories are standalone pieces that resolve their plot in less than the space of a novella but more than the space of a piece of flash fiction.
Those are some new terms! They help to contextualize what a short story really is, but to do that, you have to know what those words mean. So, the most straightforward answer I can give you is the average range of word counts for short stories and their similar (but different) friends, from smallest to largest:
- Microfiction is less than 100 words long. This is stuff like Ernest Hemingway’s famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s telling a story in the space of less than a Tweet.
- Flash Fiction is between 100 and 1000 words long. This is short, quickly written fiction usually found in contests, warm-ups, and social media writing (Instagram captions have a limit that makes flash fiction about the most you can do). Stories on the longer end of this spectrum may also be referred to as “short shorts.”
- Short Stories are between 1000 and 15,000 words long. The average length runs under 7,500 words. More on these in a minute!
- Novelettes sit awkwardly between short stories and novellas, and the word count to qualify for this will vary by publisher. They could be considered “long short stories,” or “short novellas.” Depending on who you ask, a 15,000 word story could be a short story, novelette, or novella.
- Novellas are between 15,000 and 50,000 words long. They’re full stories that couldn’t be told in a smaller space, and often appear in anthologies. Examples include The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (approx. 25,500 words), Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (29,000 words), and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (approx. 29,000 words).
- Novels are more than 50,000 words long. These are…well, they’re exactly what you think they are. They’re fully fleshed-out stories that take up a pretty solid amount of space. A rule of thumb for authors seeking traditional publishing for their first novel is that most traditional publishers prefer manuscripts of no more than 80,000 to 100,000 words from first time authors.
Technically there’s a larger class called the “long novel” or the “Russian novel,” which covers books longer than 200,000 words, but there aren’t very many of those (outside of classic Russian literature, obviously), so we don’t really need to worry about it.
Why word count matters
How long should a short story be? Well… there’s really no hard and fast rules. The counts I’ve provided above are ballpark ranges, not strict limits; I’ve seen people label 600 word pieces as short stories and 1500 word pieces as flash fiction. I’ve seen people call 25,000 words a novel and insist that novel word counts don’t matter (they do, though, more on that below). In fact, I’ve seen people use words I haven’t included here, like “drabbles,” to describe a certain length of work.
What really matters is the individual assignment you’re working toward, and what the person you’re writing the story considers the word count goal to be. If you’re writing for yourself, feel free to call your short fiction whatever you like! If you’re working for someone else, that’s when things get somewhat tricky.
Word counts and business
From a business standpoint, it’s important to be able to classify your work. Most publishing houses, specific agents, and publications will require a word count to be listed in your query, and will ask you to describe your work in terms of which category it falls into. This is so that they know how to market it and where.
For instance, literary agents and publishing houses are generally looking for full-length novels or novellas, while publications like literary magazines generally want short stories (though they do sometimes take serial fiction, but that’s another story). This is because agents and publishing houses need something that they can print and put in bookstores, while magazines and the like need pieces that can pack a punch in a much smaller page count. Either way, a publisher of any kind needs to know concrete word counts to estimate production costs for services like editing, formatting, printing, binding, shipping, and distribution.
Word counts and writers
It’s also important for professional writers, who often get paid to create a certain amount of content. That’s my job as a copywriter; I’m given specific word counts for various projects because of clients’ specific needs, and I have to stick to them as a part of my contract. If I write a flash-fiction piece for a client who commissioned a short story, they’re going to feel ripped off. If I write a novella for that same client, I would feel ripped off.
From a writing standpoint, while many authors write without a specific word count in mind, you may find it helpful to have a set goal to work toward. Take as an example the National Novel Writing Month challenge, more popularly known as NaNoWriMo. During the month of November, writers around the world are challenged to write a full-length novel with a final goal of 50,000 words. The purpose of the challenge is to help authors get ideas out of their heads and onto paper in a structured and competitive atmosphere full of community support. The NaNoWriMo site lets you track daily word counts and even gives you a helpful chart that shows your progress. It can be a great way to stay motivated.
When writing short stories, you might find that having a specific word count in mind helps you tell the story in a more concise way. It can show you where you have issues with pacing; maybe you reach the end way too fast and only have 500 words, or maybe you’re on word 782 and your ending is nowhere in sight. Having a set word count means that, whether you’re a planner or a pantser, you’ve got to have a plan of attack as you write, helping you learn to structure your stories.
How to write short fiction stories well
Writing short fiction is very different from writing a novel. For starters, you don’t have any room - every word you write has to be plot-relevant and engaging. There’s no space for extended backstories or character development - if the audience doesn’t absolutely need to know it, it won’t fit in the story.
It can, however, use some of the same muscle memory that novel writing does. You still need to know what your story is before you tell it, and you need to know what beats to hit and when, with what information. Consider using a similar planning process to your novel writing, but on a shorter timeline.
Short fiction does have its benefits. You can still use fun literary tricks and tropes, and in some cases, you can even focus in on and highlight a trope that wouldn’t fill a full-length novel of story. You can set challenges for yourself or follow writing prompts to stretch your creativity to its limit. Best of all, you can write multiple short stories in a short amount of time!
With that in mind, here are some steps to help you write a short story that people will really want to read.
- Have a plan of attack. It’s incredibly basic advice, but it’s well worth it. Like I said, every word counts here, so you should have some sort of plan for those words. If nothing else, have a plan for your main characters, overarching plot, story themes, driving conflict, and setting.
- Do your research. Writing a story set on a ship? Know what a ship’s parts are called. Writing about the 1950s United States? It’s a good idea to know the major events and customs of the decade. Get to know your story’s setting and characters before you get to know the plot so that you writing can be well informed.
- Set a word count goal. Have a number in mind, in the range of the kind of short fiction you’re writing (or, for contest pieces, the word count limit) then set it aside for now.
- Write! Write your short story until you hit the end of it. Don’t worry about word counts or grammar at this point - all you need to do is get a full draft onto the page. You can’t edit if there’s nothing to edit, after all.
- Edit for space, then style. Now you can look at your first draft’s word count and compare it to your goal. Clip your writing until it’s as precise and direct as possible to bring long stories down to size, though of course, you’re allowed to keep your stylistic flair. For example:
- “Clarissa’s home was a sprawling, four-story dream of a mansion in the sunswept Hollywood hills. It was a scandalous site, the home to many debauched and dangerous tales of star-crossed lovers turned meteoric foes.” This description is awesome! It’s also long and takes up 34 precious words.
- “Clarissa lived in a sunswept Hollywood mansion full of scandals from star-crossed lovers turned meteoric foes.” There! Much cleaner, only 16 words, and you get to keep the really cool metaphor at the end.
6. Proofread! Always, always, always proofread your stories as the very final step in writing. Nothing distracts a reader more than a misused word or weird grammatical typo, so make sure that what you’ve written makes sense. Also, now’s the time to check for spelling mistakes!
Common short fiction pitfalls
Now that we’ve talked about what it takes to make your short fiction great, it’s about time we talked about what makes it poor. I said writing short stories was different from writing novels; I never said it was easier.
As with any other form of writing, short fiction craft has its easy-to-fall-into problems. Some of them are stylistic choices while others are simple mechanical errors. Either way, they need to be addressed and actively combated to create a short story that doesn’t feel unfinished, rushed, or even boring.
Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when you’re writing short fiction, and how to navigate around them.
Making your story too big
It’s very easy as writers for us to get wrapped up in our big, elaborate fictional worlds with tons of fully-fleshed-out, brilliant characters of all kinds. We love knowing every minute detail about our fiction, from family lineages and political histories to geographical detailing and indigeonous flora and fauna.
Those worlds are fun! But they don’t often fit in short stories because, let’s face it, it’s difficult to build an entire world on the head of a pin (unless, of course, you’re Dr. Seuss). If you’re spending 700 words describing the castle and all of its inhabitants, you won’t have enough room to describe the dragon attack they fend off. This is a particularly easy trap to fall into when writing short sci-fi or fantasy stories.
While it may be challenging, this is where “killing your darlings” comes into play. Keep your details to the minimum and your cast small enough to work with in a few thousand words. I personally like writing short stories with no more than about 4 characters, and usually only one or two. Though, this limit will change with every writer.
If you do find that your story is too big to fit into the word limit you have, try telling only one part of it. Tell the story of a single character in the plot, and save the rest of the storyline for a full-length novel. It’s extremely common for short stories to inspire bigger works, so see it as a source of inspiration and the ability to give a teaser rather than as being confined to a single, short work.
Here’s a neat bonus tip: if you do have to cut out any descriptions or characters you’re particularly proud of, don’t delete them! Put them in their own “Miscellaneous” file and, when you do finally have the room for them, let them tell their story in their own, longer piece.
Making your story too small
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the issue of there being no story to your short story.
Readers are looking for action, intrigue, conflict, and motivation. They’re looking for changes in tension and action and resolution. They came here for the plot, and will be sorely disappointed if they don’t find any plot to speak of. If the only thing that happens is a character walks through a scene, then you aren’t really giving the audience a reason to read.
So, as silly as it sounds, remember that you need to include a plot and approach it like you would with a longer work. Ask yourself some framing questions. Why is he walking? Where is he going? What was happening before he came in? Why does it all matter? Answer that last one, and you’ve got yourself a plot germ to work with.
This is another reason that outlining is important; you’ve got to know what your plot is and how to get through it effectively if you’re going to write it up in 15,000 words or less.
Telling too many stories at once
So you have a protagonist going one way, an antagonist going the other way, your leading lady lamenting something over here, your comic relief cracking up over there, and somehow a battle is going on, too? In a short story, trying to work with multiple full story arcs and through lines is usually going to end up feeling rushed and unsatisfying, and may lead to frustrating narrative loose ends.
Keep your plot simple and focused for the best possible impact. Have just one major arc we follow, with one set of characters, in one set timeline (unless, of course, timeline shenanigans are a part of your story). If you’re going to have a B-plot, make sure that it’s closely tied to the A-plot and able to resolve quickly; ideally, you’ll want to spend the most time with your A-plot. That way, you don’t have to manage a million details to get your point across.
Speaking of which…
It’s annoying, but true: the shorter your piece of fiction is, the larger any plot holes and continuity errors will look. Your readers may forgive you for forgetting your protagonist’s eye color in a long 200-page novel, but in a 2-page short story, they’re going to be a bit less forgiving. Inconsistencies can be jarring, and while sometimes you can use that to your advantage to create a dramatic twist, if it’s not intentional, it can leave your writing feeling unpolished.
If you have lots of little details to keep track of, try including them in your outline! Make small character profiles and setting synopses to remind you of important in-world facts. It also helps to have a beta reader looking specifically for inconsistencies if you can.
Famous examples of short stories, from renowned short story writers
If you’d like to see some classic examples of powerful story writing in a limited number of words, take a look at the collection of short stories presented here.
Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry - A classic tale of love and self-sacrifice.
The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe -A tale of madness, family, isolation, and decay
The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson - An examination of the harm that can be done by blindly following tradition.
A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannary O’Connor - Things go very wrong on a family trip.
Short stories are great fun to write - I’ve written tons of them and I hope I write tons more. They’re a great way to boost your creativity, get projects done quickly for that faster hit of self publishing excitement, and challenge yourself to try something new and work around limits. New writers may find it worth their time to practice their craft in this medium before attempting full novels. Some writers will use them solely as warm ups, while others will make entire careers out of them.
However you choose to use short fiction, I hope you can take this advice and make your stories brief, but impactful.