How long is a short story? It’s a persistent question in writing and literary circles. But the truth is that the length of a short story is largely dictated by the narrative’s needs, the characters’ complexity, the publisher’s submission guidelines, and so on.
The closest thing to a definitive answer is that the average short story length is between 1,000 and 10,000 words. Once you exceed those bounds, you’re moving into either micro-fiction or a novella.
What Are Short Stories?
Short story writing is a literary art form in which the author manages to achieve in a few thousand words what a novelist achieves in tens of thousands of words.
Like poetry, a short story must be highly efficient, even terse, in its use of language. Moreover, character development, plot, foreshadowing, and other storytelling conventions need to be executed in a compelling and brief way.
Needless to say, short story writing is more complex than novel writing. In the same way that it is easier to write a thoughtful letter than a quality poem, short stories pose interesting challenges to both the writer and the reader.
Moreover, the language employed in short story writing can leverage poetry’s symbolism and suggestive qualities. Consider Hills Like White Elephants as an example of this.
Fortunately, we have many widely acclaimed examples from literary heavyweights like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, and many others.
Examples of Short Stories
There are many collections of short stories in volumes intended for the student, the academic, and the casual reader. These help us find short stories that suit our purpose, whether to expand our horizons or be entertained.
The following are considered to be some of the finest short story works ever produced.
Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl
This short story was rejected initially, along with a handful of other stories from Dahl.
Lamb to the Slaughter is about an abused young woman who seeks revenge through extraordinary and subtle means. It is just under 1000 words and an outstanding example of subdued intrigue and dark comedy.
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Considered to exhibit the very essence of this celebrated writer, Hills Like White Elephants is the story of a conflict between a man and a woman who disagree on a decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives. At nearly 1,500 words, this story captures the minds of men and women and how they interact in extraordinary circumstances.
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
One of the longer short stories on our list at over 3,000 words, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery depicts the horrors of the modern world in a way that few writers have matched even to this day.
First published in 1948, this story shocked readers with its depiction of human sacrifice in a contemporary setting.
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Gift was published just after the turn of the century in 1905 and tells the story of a poor married couple who have to find Christmas presents for one another on a minimal budget.
This heartwarming story is an exemplary form of love and understanding as the impoverished two share gifts that are as personalized and rarefied as those offered to the Gods by worshipful nobles.
At just over 2,100 words, this beautiful work of fiction uses words as economically as its principal characters spend their money.
A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf
Published after the author’s death, A Haunted House is much more than an ordinary ghost story. Despite the title, it is both lighthearted and whimsical.
It is a story of struggle, loss, and commitment by a writer considered the quintessential feminist. It is also staggeringly short at fewer than 500 words.
Clearly, this story breaks the word-count rule we set down in the introduction. But you will find that it is strong enough to remain among any list of short stories rather than being relegated to the category of micro-fiction.
A Haunted House does more with less than possibly any short story the average reader will ever encounter.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
Perhaps the most essential short story on any list of short stories, The Tell-Tale Heart is a masterpiece by the uncontested master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe.
It tells a story of duty and revenge using magical realism in a way that will leave the first-time reader feverish with lingering images. This literary masterpiece is just over 2,000 words in length.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Considered a hallmark of feminist literature, The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1892, designed to help women imagine roles outside of the traditional American home.
A clear inspiration to writers like Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is long at just over 6,000 words. But its place among feminist literature is secure.
The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield
Our final example, The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, is the story of the teenage daughter of a monied family in New Zealand and a garden party intruded upon by a neighbor’s tragic death.
The Garden Party employs classical symbolism to portray the contrast between the protected world occupied by the wealthy and the messy reality surrounding it. At just under 5,400 words, this entry fits our definition of the average short story word count tidily.
How Long is a Short Story?
Sometimes it can be tough to determine a short story length on the page.
When rendered onscreen, we usually have to copy and paste the text into a Word document and look at the bottom margin for the word count. But if all you have to work with is a physical page, you can come up with an estimate in several different ways.
First, consider that the average word density of a full page is either 500 for single-spaced documents or 250 for double-spaced papers. From there, you can find your approximate word count by multiplying the total number of pages.
Another way is to count the words in an average line on the page and multiply that number by the total number of lines. Then multiply the result by the total page count.
Average Word Count:
- Flash Fiction: 300 to 1000 words
- Micro Fiction: 500 to 1500 words
- Short Stories: 1,000 to 10,000 words
- Novellas: 17,000 to 40,000 words
- Novelette: 7,500 to 17,000 words
- Novel: 50,000 to 100,000 words
Of course, these word count definitions of average short story length are merely guidelines. A piece of micro-fiction could easily be printed in an anthology of flash fiction, and so on.
Fun fact: The six-word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) from Ernest Hemingway is considered a micro-story.
Word counts also depend on the requirements of traditional publishers and literary magazines. For instance, a particularly dense piece of flash fiction might read like micro-fiction and be listed that way. For more guidance on word counts, check out our how many words in a page guide.
What Are the Elements of a Short Story
Like any good piece of writing, a short story must have all the correct storytelling elements. Those parts must work together to create a coherent and compelling work to deliver the intended effect. Of course, the most important ingredient for any writer is the willingness to throw the material away and start again, or what Hemingway referred to as a “shock-proof shit detector.”
- Story Structure: Even with a shorter word count, a short story needs structure. It gives the reader the sense that the story has a point, meaning, and a satisfying conclusion.
- Characters: The main characters in any story should stand out immediately and win the reader’s interest, affection, or sympathy. They should function as symbols of meaningful themes or analogs for real people or personality types. You should also reveal them in a meaningful and compelling way as the story progresses.
- Setting: The setting (time and place) is the stage where characters and events occur and act within. Like other elements of a short story, the setting should be meaningful. Hills Like White Elephants makes exemplary use of the setting. The setting does a lot of the heavy lifting that lesser writers need novel-length word counts to pull off.
- Plot: The plot should fit within the story’s structure and mirror the characters’ lives and growth. The plot itself might be described as the behavior of the world and the characters resonating with each other.
- Conflict: There is no such thing as a story without conflict. As a matter of fact, there are seven types of conflict that you can use in your short story.
- Resolution: The resolution of the plot and conflict is highly subjective. Some stories use a minimalist approach, leaving the characters to continue as they are into an unseen future. But a good resolution will satisfy the reader and make sense of the structure, plot, and characters.
The Final Word Count
Asking how long is a short story does little to define the genre or offer much help to would-be writers. In reality, everything about good fiction is subjective. If there are any real rules, they can be reduced to Hemingway’s shock-proof detector.
No matter how long or short your story is, you should make it entertaining, meaningful, and compelling. Traditionally, the way to achieve that is to throw away 100 pages for every page kept. As the reader, you can expect stories like those discussed above to be the product of suffering, rejection, and thousands of revisions.