How Long Is A Short Story? The Perfect Word Length For Short Stories

One thing that authors need to keep in mind when writing a story is word count. While you can technically write your story to be any length, keeping the pace of a story includes some planning. Short stories have word counts with a fairly large range and are great when packed together in a collection or as stand-alone publications to help get your foot in the door when you begin writing.

Short story writing is not just for new authors. Some of the best-known, best-selling authors are known for their short stories. Jackson, London, King, Poe, and many others successfully mastered the art of the short story.

Short stories are also fun to read. You can get all of the essential elements and excitement that you would get from a novel in a bite-size story that you can usually read in one sitting. But how long is a short story? Are there hard and fast rules concerning short story word counts?

These questions and more will be answered in this article.

All the Stories

There are many classifications of stories based upon word count. While there aren’t exactly iron-clad rules regarding how many words you have to have to qualify as a short story, there are general guidelines that every writer should know and keep in mind as they begin the writing process.

Micro Fiction

Micro fiction stories are stories that are less than 100 words. While this may sound impossible, there are some examples of this craft. Commonly credited to Hemingway, there is a six-word story that simply goes, “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

This simple story invokes an emotional reaction for most readers because we can only guess why the shoes are for sale and why they have never been worn, but the common perception of the point of this story is quite the melancholy one.

The story attached to its creation is that Hemingway placed a bet that he could write a six word story, and “Baby Shoes” was the product of that bet. Another that many people have heard goes like this, “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

These tiny stories can pack a big punch and usually leave the reader more unsettled than stories with higher word counts because these incredibly short stories pack a punch in very few words. With no real explanation, they end, leaving the reader curious.

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Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is classified as a short work of fiction with a word count of under 1000 words. Another Hemingway, “A Very Short Story,” is told in under 700 words and, much like his famous six-word story, provides us with an example of being able to evoke an emotional response with very few words.

In this flash fiction story, two characters, a soldier and a nurse fall in love when the soldier is injured. They vow to get married, and he goes home to the States to get a job and be able to make a life for the woman he loves.

She stays behind to wait for him to have resources for marriage. She has an affair in that time apart, and she is duped into thinking that the man she cheated with is in love with her and will marry her. The story ends with both the nurse and the soldier incredibly unhappy and apart.

Short Story

So, that brings us again to the question: How long is a short story?

The general rule for a word count on short stories is anything over 1000 words and under 10,000 words. While there is a lot of cushion here, many short stories range somewhere in the middle of these parameters in terms of their word count.

Short stories tend to have more description than their micro fiction and flash fiction. If you write a short story, you want to give enough information and background to your reader so that they invest in the characters and the situation without dragging the plot out. 

Short stories tend to get to the point fairly quickly after a bit of background has been established, and they move at a much faster pace than a novel does.

Writing short stories can be a challenge because you can have a great idea but have just a limited amount of space in which to tell the story behind that idea. 

You have to address the subject matter fairly quickly into the story and can’t dawdle on the setup, introduction of the main character, or the interactions of multiple characters. 10,000 words may seem like a lot, but it’s really not when you’re tasked with writing an entire story so that it will engage an audience.

Bite-Sized Classics

Many of our favorite classic stories are actually short stories.

Many established writers are also masters of the short story. While many of them included their most famous short stories in short story collections, there is very little debate that great short stories can be read in one sitting and are just as enjoyable as longer works of fiction. 

The following are some examples of some short stories that have lived on in the hearts and minds of the reader and nearly everyone has heard of. While some of these are longer short stories than others, and most of them were included in collections, they are each also a great short story as a stand-alone.

  • Edgar Allen Poe: A Tell-Tale Heart (2100 words)
  • Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
  • Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party (5555 words)
  • Shirley Jackson: The Lottery (3775 words)
  • Jack London: To Build a Fire (7175 words)

Novella

The novella fits snugly between the short story and the novel. The length of a novella can have a word count that is typically anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words. Anything above 40,000 words is considered a novel.

Joyce Carol Oates is a well-known suspense author who wrote the novella “Beasts.” In this story, a female student becomes inappropriately obsessed with her English professor, throws caution to the wind, and engages in illicit and strange behavior with both the professor and his wife.

A tale of suspense, this is just one example of a great novella that pulls the readers in and gives them a lot of chaos and suspense in fewer words and space than a full-length novel. Oates has also written novella collections.

Novel

Word counts matter less with novels than they do with short stories and other short fiction pieces. Word counts can be a little elastic when it comes to novels, although the standard rule of thumb is that a novel is ideally between 50,000 and 100,000 words. There are, however, standard practices that work best as far as word count and book genres go.

Romance

Romance novels are usually fun and quick reads without a lot of depth to them. In other words, when you read a romance, you’re not there for a lot of interesting backstory. You’re there for the rush you feel when the main character falls in love and for the thrill of the story in general.

You fall in love with the story because it’s like the whirlwind romance: fun, quick, and largely superficial. Most romance novels are right at the minimum 50,000 word count.

how long is a short story

Thriller/Suspense

These are typically longer written novels. Usually coming in at around 70,000 words, thrillers, mysteries, and suspense stories typically take a little longer to build up, and writers often like to take their time with such genres.

Shirley Jackson, an author who is considered a master storyteller, wrote what is considered by many to be her masterpiece, the mystery novel ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle,’ in under 50,000 words. It came in at the minimum end of what is considered to be the range for a novel, but it is so excellently written that it doesn’t matter to most readers or book critics.

Shirley Jackson was a master of the novel, novella, and short story and remains the inspiration for some of today’s best writers.

Science Fiction

The science fiction novel is often on the upper end of the scale when it comes to the number of words. Because there are often whole worlds being introduced to the reader in a sci-fi novel, the author needs more space in which to set and build the scene and explain things like technology, weapons, society, etc.

A science fiction novel usually stretches from between 90,000 and 120,000 words. Again, this is not a hard set rule, as most of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, most of which had heavy science fiction themes, were much shorter.

“Cat’s Cradle,” one of Vonnegut’s better-known novels, is satiric science fiction and is barely over 50,000 words.

Short Story Collections

While a good short story can stand alone, they are often included in collections so that a writer can publish several of them at once. Many writers have the first draft of their stories published in magazines, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. After they have enough short stories to include in a collection, a selection is made, and a book of short stories is produced.

King has released several collections and has claimed that he plans to write short stories for the rest of his career, although he is known as the master of the horror novel. Something about the short story challenges him, and he enjoys it immensely. He has found so much success in his shorter works that many of his short stories have been made into films.

Sometimes after a writer dies, their short stories are gathered and published as a collection. This is true of both Poe and Shirley Jackson. Vonnegut is another whose unpublished short stories were collected and published in one book after his death.

Do Word Counts Really Matter?

There are certainly circumstances in which word counts don’t matter. Word counts for non-fiction are often dependent upon the subject matter. The average short story can have words that vary by a margin of over 60,000 words. Counting words shouldn’t get in the way of your writing, but you should remain cognizant of them. If for no other reason than to know what sort of finished product you’re going to have.