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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How Short Should a Short Story Be?


Short stories are increasing in popularity, and literature consumers are beginning to demand more and more pieces of writing that they can digest at one time. Evidence of the popularity of the short story is found with retailers like Amazon, which has created a specific shopping category devoted just to short stories! Clearly the average reader is demanding works in this genre, so the market is hot. However, as a writer, writing a short story can present the challenge of deciding just how long your story should be.

Many different factors can determine the length of your work, including the type of short story you want to feature, your intended audience, and your own abstract perception of telling your story completely and effectively. But you can apply some concrete measures to help you keep your work at a manageable length within each type of fiction you'd like your piece to represent. Each type of short fiction exhibits a unique pace and attitude. In contrast to a novel, for example, short fiction keeps events moving, leaves a lot of detail to the imagination, and suggests a complicated past with only a few words. Even within the short fiction genre, there are several categories of story length, and you can determine which category fits your story best when figuring out where you want the story to end up.

Short story

Edgar Allen Poe said that a short story should be short enough for a reader to consume in one sitting. This suggests that a story is measured not in terms of pages or words, but in the time it takes to read it! That's going to be different for everyone, of course, but the short stories sold under Kindle Short Reads offers a general estimate of how long a story can take to read according to page number (and to keep the measure of page number uniform, consider that ServiceScape defines one page as 300 words):

  • 15 minutes (1-11 pages)
  • 30 minutes (12-21 pages)
  • 45 minutes (22-32 pages)
  • One hour (33-43 pages)
  • 90 minutes (44-64 pages)
  • Two hours or more (65-100 pages)

Reading pace and time can vary according to whom you ask, so time is an iffy yardstick. Generally, most sources categorize a story from 1,000 to 7,500 words as a short story. Short story authors like Flannery O'Conner, Ernest Hemingway, and Ray Bradbury have written pieces within this word range and labeled them as such. If your story flirts with the top of this number range, however, you start running the risk of creating a novelette, which can be as short as 8,000 words (for a frame of reference, novellas are typically 15,000-40,000 words, a novel is 60,000-200,000 words, and a Russian novel can be even longer!).

The aforementioned word count for a short story gives you enough space to set the scene, give your characters just enough depth (and maybe a little backstory), and let the plot unfold without requiring that your readers find a suitable bookmark.


A category of shorter works than the standard short story, microfiction offers a fascinating take on literature by requiring a story to be very brief and concise. In the age of Twitter, we are presented with the task of communicating a message or thought in a few words as opposed to spelling out the whole story in an obvious way. It's little wonder then that microfiction has become such a popular venue for expression! Microfiction stories are usually less than 300 words and offer readers a quick glimpse into a scene that suggests (but doesn't give away) more detail regarding their characters' lives and goals using only a few words.

Consider the following work of microfiction:

In the Cards

Madrid, New Mexico, was barely a blip on our map where we stopped to eat runny eggs and salty hash browns before stretching our legs downtown. We stepped into a mom-and-pop store with hand-painted silverware in the window. We picked through geckos carved into metal and chunks of turquoise until we found old black-and-white photographs turned into kitschy postcards for the tourists. We bought the one showing our seventeen-year-old mother wearing cheap lace. She was laughing with a man whose flattened boutonniere sagged from his lapel. Back on the road, we studied the first clue to finding our father.

In only a paragraph, this story introduces us to the characters, their current circumstance, and their ultimate mission. The details of the scene grab readers' attention, and we are invested in the characters' situation after just a few words. Notice the pace of this story; it is distinctly more concise than a standard short story and certainly quicker than a 150-page novel telling the same story.

Under the umbrella of microfiction are several specific subcategories that have more specific word lengths. Drabble stories are exactly 100 words, excluding the title. The following example of a drabble expounds on the subject of Jell-o:

Everyone makes yum-yum noises as they dole servings onto their plates. Hilda preens. Go on, eat, darlings. But, is that a hair in the perfection salad? That black coiled thing. The party pretends not to notice. I've forgotten the cream, she says, hefting it back into the kitchen. She takes a fork and incises a sliver, interloper inside. It splits forgivingly. There, unmistakably hair. Lenore turns the corner, frowning. "Darling, we're missing the hostess." She laughs as Hilda puts down the fork sheepishly. "Naughty, were you sneaking bites?" Hilda smiles, gelatin and the hair rolling in her mouth, and swallows.

Shorter still are works of nanofiction, which are less than 100 words, and a dribble story is 50 words exactly (again, not counting the title). Here's a strong, timely example from Eileen Mardras regarding her reality during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Stopping was easy. Stay at home, clean the closets, read a book. But the weeks and months run on, and staying home has become the new normal. It is more difficult to restart. When? How? Where? And when everyone stopped calling to say, "Are you ok?", that's when I wasn't.

Eileen Mardras' No

A six-word story is, you guessed it, six words long. The following is a famous six-word story (often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but the claim was never substantiated): "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

The unspoken sadness of this six-word story demonstrates that works of microfiction must point to a vast underlying history or emotion without spelling it out for the reader. Certainly, the shorter the story, the more meticulous an author must be with each and every word in order to communicate the intended message. That's why creating a work of microfiction can be a fruitful exercise for a writer to finetune his or her word choices and skills of literary expression. Give it a try! Many organizations offer regular writing competitions to give authors the opportunity to stretch their writing muscles. For example, Carrot Ranch holds a 99-word story competition every week, so there's no excuse not to try.

Many writing experts recommend that, when writing a short story, you should forget word counts at first and just let the story flow. When you've finished, you can fine tune the necessary content and tweak the details to make your story fit into a desired category. If your goal is to be published and you find that your story is straddling the line between categories – let's say you've written a 10,000-word story and it's currently neither a short story nor a novelette – consider either condensing or further developing your story to give it a clear-cut label. Your story often takes on its own personality and will tell you whether it wants to be longer or shorter. If your story has a clear home, you give it a greater chance of surviving any preliminary eliminations that publishers undergo to weed out the field.

Writing a short story can be an end in itself, but if you are a novel writer, it can also offer a fresh approach and writing exercise when you are between longer works. Sometimes a short story can even serve as a prompt for a more substantial work that explores all the events that brought your beloved characters to this scene as depicted in your short story. By itself, the short story offers readers a very accessible piece of literature to enjoy during a free moment without requiring a long-term time investment. Whatever word length you settle on for your story, it can be a perfect fit for commuters and other literature consumers seeking bite-sized entertainment and a quick escape from daily life.

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