Here on the Literary Roadhouse, we’re all about short stories. There are two good reasons for this:
1) they are a wonderful form of literature, forcing tight storytelling and encouraging powerful imagery
2) they ensure we (as well as our audience) can read the stories each week for the podcast.
But what do we mean by a short story?
As writers, when we create a piece of fiction, we are aware of the length categories into which stories fall. There are no specific rules on story lengths. There are several ‘conventions’, but there is no strict agreement.
Let’s look at the stories we’ve chosen so far:
Week 1: The Story of an Hour – Kate Chopin – 1,103 words
Week 2: The Cheater’s Guide To Love by by Junot Diaz – 9,343 words
Week 3: The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges – 2,201 words
Week 4: Eminence by Caroline Casper – 4,827 words
So, we’ve already chosen a pretty wide variation, but they all fall below 10,000 words, which is approximately equivalent to 30 pages of a novel. That’s not to say that we can’t choose a story above that – these things are flexible.
But the best definition of a short story has nothing to do with word counts or pages. It’s from Edgar Allen Poe – “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”.
ARE SHORT STORIES ANY GOOD?
Can you tell a complete story in such a few words? Many readers of novels would say that you can’t, and that you need the length of a novel to tell the complete story and fill out the characters.
Ernest Hemingway, a real master of the short fiction form, responding to a challenge, wrote an infamous 6-word short story:
In just six words, there is a complete story, a sad story. It is inexplicit, subtle, but perfectly formed.
Someone on Reddit asked for a good horror story in two sentences. The one which was by far the best is linked in the references at the bottom (the actual text is copyright). Only forty-four words, and an intriguing and damned scary story.
In truth, most of the best short stories extend well into beyond a thousand words. There is a school thought that a writer can’t produce a quality literary short story with fully-rounded characters and intriguing themes and all the things which make short stories great in less than a thousand words. Reaching for the nearest Best American Short Stories from my shelf (a quality, annual collection of literary short fiction), I estimate that the average length of each of the twenty stories contained therein is around 5,500 words.
So, where does that leave us? How short (or long) is a short story?
It’s the same, whatever label you want to attach to it: it’s as long as it needs to be to tell the story in a compelling way.