“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.”
― Neil Gaiman
The term fiction encompasses a broad spectrum of narrative media and genres including novels, plays, films, TV programmes, poems, comics and even video games. But here we are focusing on prose that is designed to be read (or listened to as someone else reads it aloud) and that is not “true”. That is to say, fiction is “made up”, created from the imagination of the author. And though there will inevitably be aspects of (almost) any work of fiction that are true to real life, fiction must necessarily include some combination of characters, situations, events, locations or other aspects that do not exist other than in that fictional world so that it is removed from reality to some degree. In other words, we’re talking about stories.
Specifically, this article addresses the notion of short fiction; that is any stories containing fewer words than are conventionally considered to be contained within a novel or, more pertinently, a novella. We’ll delve into the different types of short fiction in due course, but first let’s briefly give an opinion on the limits of short fiction concerning the number of words it should contain.
What Are The Boundaries Of Short Fiction?
As we have mentioned, when referring to short fiction, the upper boundary would generally be considered to be the novella. Some people might include novellas as short fiction, though in general novellas are considered longer form fiction than short stories and thus are categorised separately. There is no universally agreed word count of novellas and we have no desire to be definitive about such things. Whether a piece of longer fiction is considered a short novel or a novella is, ultimately, neither here nor there to most people.
We also don’t fancy (in this article at least) delving into the definition of a story: there are elements that a piece of fiction must (or should) possess for it to be classified as a story. But as in any creative art, rules and definitions are rather fluid to say the least and nothing is set in stone.
The Longest Short Fiction
Going back to the less abstract side of things, namely the number of words a piece of work contains, we define short fiction as works that are shorter than novellas. In general terms, something around 10,000 words would mark the rough boundary between something being a short story and a novella. Although to muddy the waters somewhat, some people suggest there is a further category that sits snuggly between the short story and the novella, namely the novelette.
With this in mind, it would be suggested that short stories could run to anything up to around 7,000 or 8,000 words; novelettes would then run from around that mark up to something like 17,500 or even 20,000; novellas would thus contain around 17,500 up to around 40,000 words.
Technically it could be argued that both novelettes and novellas should fall into the short fiction category. But for us, we draw the line at the upper word limit of short stories. Notably, short story competitions vary in their upper word limit, with 5,000 being quite a common midpoint but some (notably the Globe Soup Short Story Comp) having a hefty maximum of 8,000, which for some would be more of a novelette than a short story.
The Shortest Short Fiction
When we get to the other end of the scale, we have things like microfiction and even six-word stories that really push the boundaries of how few words can be used to create a work of fiction. The oft-cited example of a brilliant six-word story is the following:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
It has commonly been attributed to the great Ernest Hemingway, although many think this is more of an urban legend than a fact. Either way, there is no doubt the six words create an effect on the reader. Whether the piece of fiction constitutes an actual story is open to debate, of course. It could be argued that the “story” itself is what is implied by the six words, rather than communicated by them. But the implication of a story (or the elaboration of one) is common in almost all works of fiction, so that does not invalidate it in our eyes.
It could be argued that certain news story headlines could be viewed as stories in their own right (and, depending on the rag or website you are reading, they might well qualify as fiction too). Indeed, some one-word headlines could feasibly convey lots of information about a story if accompanied by an image or if the context is known by the reader. But when we focus on pure short fiction, we find it hard to believe that a short story can really be communicated in anything under six words, and even then it is pushing the limits of what can be considered a story.
Types Of Short Fiction
Now we’ve (just about) established the boundaries within which short fiction lies, we shall outline the most popular types of short fiction you might encounter these days. Note that there are offshoots of many of these appearing all the time, but here we cover the most typically accepted forms.
Note that the suggested word counts for each type are deliberately vague as there are no hard and fast rules about such things, so view them just as a rough guide.
Microfiction – 5 to 100 words
Yes, we suggest above that it’s unlikely anything passing as a story could be written in fewer than six words, but we’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to the most minuscule of microfiction writers and go with a five-word minimum instead. If you think you can produce a story of four words or fewer, however, we’re open to having our minds blown.
The whole challenge of microfiction is to produce a coherent narrative within such tight constraints. To give enough information to the reader to allow them to construct the parts of the story that must necessarily be excluded from what’s written is a skill that few writers perfect. One of the main pitfalls of microfiction is that there is simply insufficient information for the story to make a lasting impact on the reader and the author is guilty of producing a story that is meaningful only within the bounds of their mind.
There are various “subgenres” of microfiction including “dribble” (exactly 50 words), “drabble” (exactly 100 words) and “twitterature” (of up to 280 characters, i.e. the maximum allowed in a Tweet on Twitter). But essentially anything containing 100 words or fewer fits into the microfiction category.
Flash Fiction – 101 to 1,000 words
Flash fiction has a distinct advantage over microfiction in that there are enough words to add a little more description or context to a character or scenario. It is still a challenge to communicate the body of a story in so few words without resorting to just the bare bones, but with flash fiction reaching up to the dizzy heights of up to 1,000 words, there’s plenty of scope.
You will tend to find that most flash fiction competitions (and indeed our own New Writers Flash Fiction Competitions) will have a maximum word limit of between 200 and 400 words. But there are some competitions or publications that seek submissions of flash fiction that are nearer the 1,000-word limit.
Although some people view flash fiction as a relatively new thing, it has been around for millennia. Notable works of (what might now fall within the bounds of) flash fiction include Aesop’s Fables, the ancient Indian animal fables contained within Panchatantra. More recent proponents include literary greats Walt Whitman and Somerset Maugham.
Short Story – 1,001 to 8,000 words
Like flash fiction, short stories have been around for centuries and could even be argued to be the oldest form of literature that predates the written word. Myths, legends and fairy tales that were communicated orally within and between ancient tribes would – if written down – most likely fall within the bounds of what is today considered to be a short story (although there would be some crossover into song and verse too).
As well as being one of the oldest forms of literature, in the eyes of many, the short story is indeed the purest. In contrast to a novel which – for those of us with responsibilities at least – will be read over the course of several occasions, the short story is designed to be feasted upon in one, indulgent sitting in which one’s attention can be given fully to the tale at hand. Indeed, as Edgar Allen Poe suggested in his essay The Philosophy of Composition:
“If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression – for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.”
And there is certainly something in that. To lose oneself in a story, only to be drawn back to reality before the story has reached its denouement must surely detract from the effect. In contrast to that, consuming a story in one go, letting the mind and soul dance in the word-created world, becomes something whole and pure. As long as the story is good enough, of course.
There have been so many fantastic short story writers through the ages that we won’t attempt to give a potted history of the art. Indeed many great novelists have appeared to cut their teeth on short stories as they honed their craft. Here are some of the most celebrated short story writers and some of our favourites:
- Geoffrey Chaucer
- Hans Christian Andersen
- Brothers Grimm
- Rudyard Kipling
- Anton Chekhov
- Madame de Lafayette
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Rabindranath Tagore
- Kate Chopin
- Ernest Hemingway
- Agatha Christie
- James Joyce
- Franz Kafka
- VS Pritchett
- Roald Dahl
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Alice Munro
- Will Self
Novelette and Novella
As mentioned above, the gap between the short story and the novel is filled by the novella and, if you like, the novelette. For us they don’t really fall under the umbrella of “short fiction”, and rather they are simply “shorter fiction than novels”.
As you can see from the list of celebrated novellas (and in some cases novelettes), some of the greatest works of literature fall into that category. And certainly, there are some immensely popular works of fiction contained below. Perhaps the appeal to some of them – aside from them being so blooming good – is that they can be digested in a single sitting, like a short story?
|Albert Camus||The Stranger||1942|
|Truman Capote||Breakfast at Tiffany’s||1958|
|Joseph Conrad||Heart of Darkness||1899|
|Charles Dickens||A Christmas Carol||1843|
|Ernest Hemingway||The Old Man and the Sea||1952|
|Franz Kafka||The Metamorphosis||1915|
|George Orwell||Animal Farm||1945|
|John Steinbeck||Of Mice and Men||1937|
|Robert Louis Stevenson||Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde||1886|
|H. G. Wells||The War of the Worlds||1898|
|Edith Wharton||Ethan Frome||1911|
|Julian Barnes||The Sense of an Ending||2011|
|Kate Chopin||The Awakening||1899|
|Paulo Coelho||The Alchemist||1988|
|Fyodor Dostoyevsky||The Gambler||1867|
|George Eliot||Silas Marner||1861|
|Penelope Fitzgerald||The Bookshop||1978|
|Graham Greene||The Tenth Man||1985|
|Shirley Jackson||We Have Always Lived in the Castle||1962|
|Henry James||The Turn of the Screw||1898|
|Stephen King||Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption||1982|
|Doris Lessing||The Fifth Child||1988|
|Thomas Mann||Death in Venice||1912|
|Herman Melville||Bartleby, the Scrivener||1853|
|Iris Murdoch||Something Special||1957|
|Annie Proulx||Brokeback Mountain||1997|
|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn||One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich||1962|
|Muriel Spark||The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie||1961|
|Leo Tolstoy||The Death of Ivan Ilyich||1886|
|H. G. Wells||The Time Machine||1895|
Short Fiction Conclusions
As we have seen, short fiction is a broad church that encompasses anything from just a handful of words up to 10,000 words and possibly even more. Though we don’t include novellas and novelettes in this category, there is no doubt there is a valid space for them judging by the works of brilliance listed above.
But when it comes to short fiction, from our point of view it’s all about microfiction, flash fiction and short stories, all of which can prove invaluable to the aspiring author as they hone their skills, develop new ones and allow themselves to experiment with form and ideas without investing huge swathes of time in the process.