How Long Is a Short Story? All Your Questions Answered!
Defining the short story form may seem like a simple task, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. “How long is a short story?” can be a particularly tough question to answer — yes, a short story is short, but how many words does that entail? Moreover, which qualities determine a short story, other than mere brevity?
This post will address these questions in the clearest terms possible, including average short story length, other features of a short story, and plenty of examples to demonstrate. By the end, you should know exactly what goes into short stories, and may even feel ready to write one yourself!
How long is a short story?
The average short story is about 3,000-7,000 words long, but can be up to 10,000 words and still qualify as a “short story.” A short story of 1,000 words or less is flash fiction, and a story of 500 words or less is microfiction.
In other words, short story length is pretty straightforward! If you’ve perused a piece of fiction that’s 10,000 words or less, you could justifiably call it a short story. If it happened to be less than 1,000 words, you could call it flash fiction or microfiction, but both of these still fall under the umbrella of the short story.
As for the mean of all short stories, is it around 5,000-6,000 words, as the range above would imply? Most likely, yes: our studies of well-known short stories found a fairly even distribution along the spectrum. (For context, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is roughly 5,000 words, Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” is around 3,000, and “Cat Person” — the New Yorker story that went viral in late 2017 — is just over 7,000 words long.)
Here’s an infographic comparing the word counts of ten famous short stories, so you can see for yourself how they stack up! And if you want to read them for yourself, we've linked all these titles below in the “short story examples” section.
Note that over at the Reedsy short story contest, we cap submissions at 3,000 words so our judges have time to read all entries. A story longer than 3,000 words is certainly still a short story, but if you want to enter the Reedsy contest, you may need to get out your editing shears ✂️
What qualifies as a short story?
Again, a short story can be anywhere from 10 words to 10,000 words long. But let's talk about what makes a short story besides word count, namely: mood and tone, characters and scenes, and the amount of time they take to read and write.
For starters, unlike most novels, short stories tend to focus on mood and tone above all else — conjuring a potent atmosphere so readers will feel immersed even in a short amount of time. This is partly artistic and partly a tactical move, as elaborate plots simply aren't very effective in this form.
Indeed, a typical short story has just 1-2 main characters and, at most, 5-6 scenes. Plenty of short stories consist of only a single drawn-out scene, as this is often more conducive to mood than switching among many scenes.
Finally, many would define a short story as “a story that can be read in a single sitting.” Naturally, short stories also take less time to write than longer-form narratives! This may make them more appealing to writers who are just starting out (though we'd caution anyone who thinks that writing a short story is easy, per se).
With these qualifications in mind, your sense of the short story form should be coming along nicely! But there are still a few gray areas when it comes to stories vs. other forms, which we’ll attempt to clarify over these next few sections.
A poem can function as a short story
Believe it or not, a poem can sometimes act as a short story. Examples of stories told in poetic verse include The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, and the lais of Marie de France. That said, these fictional poems wouldn’t necessarily be designated “short stories” — they’d more likely be called narrative poetry.
There are also “prose poems” not written in verse, but which take on the style and atmosphere of poetry. (“Information” by David Ignatow is a great example.) Again, these wouldn’t always be labeled short stories, but they do serve the same kind of narrative purpose in a similar amount of space — and they’re an interesting form for creative writers to keep in mind!
Novellas are not short stories
Novellas definitely do not qualify as short stories; this is exactly why they have their own category. A novella contains significantly more words than a short story, usually in the 20,000-30,000 word range, and can even be up to 40,000 words long.
As you’d imagine, they’re also much closer to novels in scope, typically fleshing out multi-act plots and various characters. Quintessential examples include A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and Coraline by Neil Gaiman, each amounting to around 30,000 words — again, clearly beyond the bounds of a short story — with a fairly elaborate plot.
Novelettes are trickier. These contain anywhere from 7,500 to 17,500 words, which obviously overlaps with the upper word count range of the short story. However, you can still look at the scope to tell the difference: does it involve only a handful of scenes, or many? Is the cast limited to a couple of characters, or not? The greater the scope, the more likely it’s actually a novelette.
Flash fiction and microfiction are “icebergs”
We’ve already established that these stories qualify as short, so why do their categories even exist? Well, partly because humans like to be as specific as possible, even when differences are infinitesimal — but also because there are a few elements, other than word count, that set flash fiction and microfiction apart from standard-issue short stories.
The main difference is that the fewer words you have to tell a story, the more you have to imply. Flash fiction, especially super-short microfiction, perfectly embodies this principle, which itself derives from Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of story development.
Not sure what we mean? Look no further than the most famous piece of microfiction of all time, written by Hemingway himself: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This six-word story is a mere shred of ice on an arctic surface, yet beneath it lies a colossal iceberg of implications.
There are a few other common quirks of these categories, such as presenting bizarre scenarios (“Taylor Swift”, “War of the Clowns”) or using personal, emotional language (“Curriculum”, “The Visitor”) to make an extra-strong impression in minimal space. But for the most part, it’s all about the implications — something that cannot necessarily be said for “regular” short stories.
Speaking of which, if you’re more of a short story traditionalist, we've compiled few more classic examples to satisfy you below! 👇
Short story examples
🐘 “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway (1,500 words)
🎟️ “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (3,000 words)
🖤 “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe (4,000 words)
🐑 “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl (4,000 words)
🗣️ “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros (4,500 words)
💧 “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston (4,700 words)
🏊 “The Swimmer” by John Cheever (5,000 words)
💭 “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” by Sylvia Plath (5,800 words)
🌼 “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (6,000 words)
🌬️ “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (6,500 words)
👱🏼 “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (6,500 words)
📍 “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates (7,000 words)
🐈 “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian (7,000 words)
🌎 “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri (7,700 words)
👒 “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado (8,000 words)
Hungry for more short fiction? Check out this list of the best short stories and collections that everyone should read. And if you're STILL craving short stories after that, you'll find thousands of original pieces available to read via our Reedsy short story directory!
How long should your story be?
After all this, you might still be wondering, “Okay, but if I write a short story, how long should it actually be?” The answer, of course, is however many words it takes to tell the thing.
Still, if you’re just starting out, you may want to choose relatively easy subject matter so the word count doesn't overwhelm you. Our weekly short story contest is great for this! Sign up to receive straightforward, specific prompts around which to spin your stories.
And now that you’ve got all the technical knowledge you need, you can get out there and pen the next New Yorker viral phenomenon! Best of luck.