Short stories are a unique artform. They are not novels that are compressed into fewer pages. They do not require less skill to write than a novel – in fact, they are actually more complex. And lastly, writing the short story allows a writer to hone their skills in ways that a novel never will.
So now that I’ve told you several things that a short story is NOT, let’s talk about what they are.
If we talk about the very basics:
A short story is where something happened to somebody.
The short story only has one main character – and this is their story. This character is usually known as the Protagonist.
The thing that happens to the Protagonist is the Plot of your story.
Trying to attain some sort of goal or complete a mission is your Protagonist’s motivation and the driving force of your storyline.
To thicken the plot, and make things more interesting, there is something standing in the way of your Protagonist. This thing can be a person, thing, thought, or idea that keeps the Protagonist from attaining their goal or completing their mission.
If it a person standing in the way of your Protagonist, this is usually your Antagonist. The main purpose for an Antagonist in any short story is to give the Protagonist nothing but grief.
A short story has a limited wordcount.
BEFORE I say anything about the WORD COUNT of a SHORT STORY – I want to first tell you that IF you are writing a short story for a specific publication or contest – MAKE SURE YOU CHECK THE GUIDELINES!!
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Depending on the particular article you are reading on the internet, a short story can be defined as anything between 500 words ALL THE WAY UP TO: 17,000 words. (Within my guidelines, this would be more of a Novella, but obviously the editors were willing to look at lengthier stories.)
I’ve come to accept the following guidelines for myself.
A story with a word count between 500 to 1,000 words is FLASH FICTION.
When I made a study of the short stories by famous authors, I came up with an average. I chose to look at the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and last, but certainly not least, Stephen King.
Stephen King once answered the question of how long a story should be with ‘as long as it takes to tell the tale.’ When you read his stories, it is obvious he takes his own advice. In his several different collections, my favorite being ‘Different Seasons,’ his stories included a wide range in wordcount; anywhere from approximately 5,000 to 11,000.
While King is arguably the most prolific short story writer of our time, his work differs a bit from the Masters of the Short Story.
I personally consider those folks to be:
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is known for saying that the proper length of a short story had to be something readable in a single sitting. This is a wonderful way to describe a short story, but we all know that different people read at different speeds. Therefore, I will stick with using word count as a yard stick.
When you look at Poe’s works, you find that with the exception of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe tended to keep his short stories short. In fact, he must think people read very slowly, or they don’t sit for very long, three of his short stories are in the mid-2,000 word count.
Reading Ray Bradbury’s short stories gave me an insight into his beliefs. As a legend in the short story world, he has a great deal of diversity in the lengths of his stories. They range at the upper lengths of mid-6,000s, but he also writes stories at the lower end of the 1,000s, as well as, in the mid-range at 4,000 words.
Hemingway seems to be obsessed with variety. His stories are either very long or very short. One has to wonder if this was something he did on purpose – OR — were the ideas he came up with either lengthy or short. This great master is a good example of how you don’t have to stick to just one length of story.
I think Bradbury, King, and Hemingway teach us that you can create amazing stories using both few and more words. It all depends on how YOU tell the tale.
However, here’s a number:
According to my evaluation, that’s the number to aim for. So, if you don’t know how long to make your short story, shoot for around 5,000 words.
What lessons did I learn while researching this topic?
After spending a lot of time researching the length of different stories, I came up with an average after looking at a total of fifty short stories. This bit of research did teach me a few things: There isn’t a ‘perfect length of a short story.’ It is up to the writer to define whether the IDEA they have can be carried for more or less words.
But here are a few things to think about:
Unless you want to enter competitions for flash fiction (which there are very few, you should probably write longer short stories.
It’s much harder to write very short stories that are good. So, start out by giving yourself 4 to 5,000 words of space.
Remember, the key to writing a great short story isn’t measured by the amount of words, but by how long it lasts in the memory of your readers.
Until next time,
(I’m chuckling because this was a BLOG about the Short Story, and it is one of the longest ones I’ve written.)