Short stories are a fantastic way for writers to develop their craft for longer fiction, and an exciting category of writing in their own right.
Although they’ve grown in popularity across Australia in more recent years, short stories have been a staple in American literature for decades, with some of the world’s best short story writers hailing from the States.
Readers all over the world have enjoyed expertly crafted short stories from the likes of American writers such as Mark Twain, Raymond Carver, Shirley Jackson, Dorothy Parker, Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Edgar Allen Poe.
Readers tend to love short stories as they require less time commitment, yet are often equally as satisfying to read as longer works like novels.
It benefits new and established writers alike to get into short story writing. If it’s a form you’re keen to try out, but you aren’t sure exactly where to begin, there are a few things to consider.
Understanding how long a short story should be is the perfect starting point, and that’s what we’ll be investigating today.
How long should a short story be?
Figuring out the ‘right’ length of a short story can be tricky.
Too long and you risk losing the reader’s interest; too short and it might fail to deliver anything of value for the reader, or it won’t be considered a ‘legitimate’ short story.
There’s a lot of debate around how long a good short story should be. A quick review of popular short story competitions offers a general idea of what you might want to aim for:
- The Bristol Short Story Prize sets a limit of 4000 words.
- The Stuart Hadow Short Story Prize and the Apollo Bay Short Story competition both have a limit of 3000 words.
- The Sydney Hammond Memorial Short Story competition and the Audrey Daybook Short Story Competition are at the shorter end of the scale, both with a limit of 1000 words.
So, in terms of what is acceptable and acknowledged as a short story in the competition world, between 1000 and 4000 words seems to be the range on which to set your sights.
This is only a guide, though; there are many publications and competitions that accept short stories up to 7500 words. Some even accept stories up to 10,000 words, although these are less common.
What qualifies as a short story?
While the length of a short story is important, there are other things to consider. Ticking the word count box won’t mean anything if nothing actually happens within the story itself to enrapture the reader.
The beauty of the short story is that it delivers a complete story succinctly, while demonstrating exceptional writing craft.
There are five main qualities writers should consider when crafting their short story, all of which will come into play when considering the word length they want to aim for:
Owing to the shorter length of this form, it’s not a good idea to write something with half a dozen or more characters.
Instead, focus on one or two main characters, with one or two periphery characters. The fewer the better so you can concentrate on the other elements vital to bringing your story together.
Readers generally enjoy stories with some form of character arc. This is where the character goes through a change, development or complete transformation.
In a shorter form, like a short story, you need to think carefully about what this might look like and how to demonstrate it in your writing.
The most powerful short stories keep their plots tight. Character development tends to take priority in this form, but that doesn’t mean plot shouldn’t still be moving things along.
Focusing on the setting is a great way to build a short story without having to lose valuable word count.
Even brief descriptions of landscape, scenery, buildings, seasons or weather can provide a strong sense of setting and bring enriching details into your story.
The theme is the central idea within a short story. Themes are very important in short storytelling.
Most short story collections will have a strong theme that threads all the stories together, even though they focus on different characters and subject matter.
Is under 1000 words a short story?
No. Usually, anything under 1000 words would not be considered a short story.
There are two other classifications under which very short works of fiction tend to fall:
Word counts for flash fiction tend to be anywhere between 150 and 1000 words.
Most publications and competitions seeking flash fiction stipulate word counts between 250 and 500 words.
As you may guess from the title, works of microfiction tend to be very, very short stories – even shorter than flash fiction. Word counts tend to be between 5 and 100 words.
Some publications will accept up to 250 words as microfiction, but the focus is generally on stories up to 100 words.
Is 5000 words a short story?
Although we talked about a general guideline of short stories being between 1000 and 4000 words, there are plenty of other outlets and publications that accept longer short stories (5000+ words).
Here are some word counts of short stories by writers famous for the form:
- One of These Days by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 1000 words
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe: 2100 words
- The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: 3775 words
- The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield: 5555 words
- To Build A Fire by Jack London: 7175 words
- The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe: 7225 words
The truth is there’s a lot of flexibility within this form, which is what makes it so much fun to write.
If you’re setting out to write short stories, focus on the story itself first and foremost, rather than the word count.
Then, if there’s a competition or publication you’ve got your heart set on, you can check their word count guidelines and edit your piece to meet the requirement.
How many pages is a short story?
The number of pages for a short story comes down entirely to the word count; longer word counts will equal more pages.
As a guideline, this is how many pages common short story word counts equate to:
- 1000 words is 2 x A4 single-spaced pages and 4 x double-spaced pages.
- 1500 words is 3 x A4 single-spaced pages and 6 x double-spaced pages.
- 2000 words is 4 x A4 single-spaced pages and 8 x double-spaced pages.
- 2500 words is 5 x A4 single-spaced pages and 10 x double-spaced pages.
When it comes to how this might look within a printed book, that comes down to the publisher, font and typesetting style.
How many chapters is a short story?
Typically, short stories tend not to have chapters, as they are seen as complete and conceptual stories on their own that don’t require breaks in the form of chapters the way longer novels do.
But that doesn’t mean to say some short stories don’t also have chapters!
Some short story writers like to be experimental and playful with the format of their stories, including splitting them up into shorter chapters.
When it comes to deciding whether your own short story should include chapters or not, consider whether you want to be more ‘traditional’ or ‘experimental’, and whether this approach suits the story itself.
Read as many short stories as you can to explore how others have approached this style of writing, reflecting on the stories you enjoy and why.
Take these reflections forward into your own writing and don’t be afraid to mix things up if it feels right.
Is a short story the same as a novella?
No, a short story and a novella are two distinct formats of storytelling. The general distinction is again found within the word counts for each.
Where short stories may be anywhere up to 7500 words and sometimes even goes up to 10,000 words, a novella’s word count tends to start around the 15–17,000 mark and go anywhere up to 40,000 words.
As with short stories, there are no hard and fast rules on the word counts for novellas, and some markets accept submissions of up to 50,000 words.
When you consider that the expected word count for most novels is between 70,000 and 100,000 words, you can see where the hierarchy of word counts starts to fit together in the scheme of different story formats.
Word count rules were made to be broken
If you’re wondering what to aim for when writing your story, consider the following a very loose guide:
- Short story: Between 1000 and 7500 words
- Novelette/Novella: Between 10,000 and 40,000 words
- Novel: 70,000 and above.
It’s important to remember the most important thing when it comes to writing is getting your story written.
Focus on telling the story first and foremost and worry about the word count requirement after.
Although it’s nice to have a number to aim for, word counts, like writing rules, were made to be broken.
If you start writing and feel your story is going to exceed the ‘standard’ word count rule of thumb, don’t let that hold you back!