Someone asked my advice about this the other day — which prompted this post. It is a question many people ask themselves when they write their first story. But “How long is a short story?” is not always a helpful question, as short stories don’t have to be a set length. “How long do I think this particular story needs to be?” might be a better place to start.
There are norms, however. In the UK, most published short stories are upwards of 2,000 words, and rarely more than 5000 words. Chekhov is often referred to as a master of the short story, but his stories can seem surprisingly unbrief to a modern reader, clocking in at often upwards of 10,000 words a tale. A random example, ‘On the Road’ (1886), is nearly 7000 words long and opens with a 500-word description of the setting and main characters.
Since Chekhov’s day (most of his stories were first published between 1883 and 1903), story lengths have shrunk dramatically, perhaps to fit shorter attention spans, and perhaps also to fit newly available means of delivery – including screen, phone, blog etc. Readers have also have become more sophisticated “users” of narrative, capable of speedily picking up subtle narrative clues.
Hanif Kureishi’s story ‘Weddings and Beheadings’, controversial runner-up in the National Short Story prize a few years back, weighed in at just 1007 words. And going shorter still, the hundred-word story has been popular among science fiction writers since the 1980s. It is sometimes referred to as a drabble — no, not after Margaret Drabble, but after a usage coined in Monty Python’s 1971 Big Red Book.
There are a number of online outlets for very short fiction, referred to in order of decreasing size as flash fiction (approx. 1000 words or less), micro-fiction or one-page stories (usually 250 words or less) or nano-fiction (how short can you go?). Ernest Hemingway is among the writers who have played with the six-word story, with the following: “For Sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
Other six-word miniature stories include William Gibson’s, first published in Wired online: “Bush told the truth. Hell froze.” And AL Kennedy’s, (from the Guardian): “He didn’t. She did. Big mistake.”
Such admirable brevity is not always a plus in the marketplace. Stories published in print magazines in the UK will rarely fall below 800 words or exceed 3000.
An answer as imprecise as “probably between 800 and 3000 words” may not be what you’re looking for, but for writers working in the UK it is a quite a useful answer. If targeting a particular publication, their own guidelines (typically listed under ‘Submissions’ where the publication is, or has, a website) will narrow this down.