In this second installment of the ever-popular “Ask LongShortStories” series, I wish to answer one of those pesky questions I hear so often from budding short story writers:
“How long should a short story be?”
I answer that a short story should only be long enough to complete your story arc, and not a word longer. In short story writing, we’re talking about “less is more” and therefore the short story writer had better choose his or her words wisely, making every word count.
Words are power.
Unlike in a novel, which tends to be much more forgiving, in a short story there is no room for rambling nor any excuse for vagueness. The successful short story writer had better get to the point, pronto!
Engage the reader immediately by grabbing her by the scruff of the neck and throwing her into the action. The short story is no place for sissies! Great short stories take no prisoners!
Historically, short stories have varied widely in length. Some have been so long that the writer and his publisher serialized the story into several weeks’ worth of newspapers. I enjoy writing serialized short fiction and my readers enjoy reading them, if the time interval between installments is relatively short; say about two weeks. That way, the readers still have pretty good recall of the previous story segment, and can mentally build upon it.
Some short stories are so short that they scream for attention. One of the most famous of these was this one by Ernest Hemingway:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Powerful, huh? And it’s a complete short story. No more. No less.
Modern short story writers who wish to publish their work in magazines or other print media are strictly governed by the Writers Guidelines of the particular publication in question. Here at LongShortStories, I host two short story contests annually. My maximum word count requirement for these submissions:
Here at LongShortStories, I have found over the years that my short fiction has gotten shorter and shorter. This places huge demands on a writer to craft a story so powerful, so succinct, that there is no margin for error, no place for wasted words. My readers love these flash fiction pieces, which weigh in at well under the 1000-word count. Some of these miniature masterpieces are just 100 words long.
So, the next time you are given the assignment in your Creative Writing class to write a modern-day short story, don’t get too hung up on word count, unless your teacher specifies. What REALLY matters is the tightness of the story.
Until next time, keep writing. And keep it SHORT!
Wayne C. Long
Where the short story LIVES!