Short stories are fun and easy for readers who don’t have a lot of time on their hands, but they’re also a versatile and compelling form of art!
Writers who want to practice specific skills can do so efficiently by writing short form stories.
Let’s talk about how long short stories are, the different types, and how they differ from novels.
What is a short story?
A short story is a story with a character, a plot, and a fully developed theme. Short stories are significantly shorter and less involved than novels.
Even though a short story has a smaller space to do so, it should still hold a character or story arc, use strong imagery and language, and do its best to make the reader feel something.
What are the elements of a short story?
Stories, including shorts, have five basic components:
These five elements are what make a story interesting, understandable, and complete.
Let’s look at some different types of short stories and the lengths of each.
How long is a short story?
There are different types of short stories, categorized by length–standard short stories, flash fictions, and microfictions.
We could also consider longer pieces of prose that aren’t quite novels, like the novella and the novellette.
Examples of short story lengths
Different categories of short stories can vary greatly in length, depending on who you ask. Here are the standard ranges for each, with examples.
A novella is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. The consensus for word counts on novellas is a pretty wide range! It usually lies between 15,000 and 50,000 words.
Here are a few novella titles you’re likely familiar with:
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote is 26,433 words
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is 28,912 words
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is 30,000 words
There’s also the novella’s little sister, the novellette, which is considered to be between 7,000 and 15,000 words.
An example of a novellette is Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at 13,500 words.
Your standard short story is essentially anything shorter than a novellette. In general, anything under 10,000 words is considered to be a short story.
Here are some stories you’ve likely read that fall into the “short story” category:
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe at 2,030
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is 6,000 words
- The Lottery by Shirley Jackson at 3,775
(These are all fantastic, and if you haven’t read them before, you should.)
A flash fiction is a particularly short short story, typically considered to be between 300 and 1,000 words.
From Little Birds, this flash fiction is called He Wrote Me a Song:
I knew this guy in school. His name was RJ–I don’t know what it stood for–but he used to sit with his back flat up against walls. He had to move his desk every class, but the teachers didn’t bother him about it.
RJ and I didn’t speak, but we had a routine from middle school to tenth grade where he’d hold the door open for me, we’d smile at each other, I’d loan him a pencil, we’d smile at each other. He never asked for the pencil, but the first time I saw him, he was being fussed for not having one. I slipped it into his hand that day and brought two every day after.
One day we had a fire drill. RJ stood very still next to me on the lawn. I smiled, he smiled. We didn’t say anything, but we never did. Just when the teachers were rounding us up again, I felt him slip something into my hand, and by the time I realized it was a folded piece of paper, he had disappeared into the crowd.
I waited until I was home to read it. It was a song about me. He wrote about how brave I was, like a warrior marching off to fight some great evil. The writing wasn’t great and his rhymes were forced–my name is a stupid word to rhyme with–but it was sweet. When I handed him his pencil the next day, I said, “Thanks.” He smiled.
They told us on a Wednesday, fifth period Geometry. They thought it was suicide, but I never heard for sure. I ran all the way home. I sat on my bed, hands in my lap. I remembered the warmth of his palm, pressing the slip of paper into mine.
Then I walked to my desk and pulled open the top drawer. Then the second, then all of them. I ripped clothes out of the closet, flipped my mattress. I tore my room apart, but I never found the song. And if you asked, I couldn’t recite a word.
A micro fiction is a flash fiction that doesn’t extend past a few sentences, typically fewer than 100 words.
The micro fiction everyone knows is the six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Another is Dandelions, Actually by R. Gatwood: “He showered her with roses but never asked her favorite flower.”
A longer micro fiction piece is Gator Butchering for Beginners by Kristen Arnett:
It’s easy enough to slip the skin. Wedge your knife below the bumpy ridge of spine to separate cartilage from fat; loosen tendon from pink, sticky meat. Flay everything open. Pry free the heart. It takes some nerve. What I mean is, it’ll hurt, but you can get what you crave if you want it badly enough.
Start with the head…
Short stories are great to experiment with, even if they aren’t your story form of choice. It’s easier and more effective to learn and practice specific writing techniques with shorter forms. Short stories also allow a special emphasis on imagery and language–those skills transfer easily to novels and longer pieces.
WRITING EXERCISE: try writing the same story with each type of short story. See what details are important enough to retain as your story gets shorter and shorter! How do you have to rearrange things to fit it into the limited space?
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