How Short is Short?

For the purpose of these articles we’re going to be discussing short stories in terms of stories under 2,000 words, which includes flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words). As I’ve said before I’m not entirely fond of the term flash fiction which used to apply to stories of fifty words or less, now known as microfiction. This is purely a personal preference as when I write short fiction it’s usually under 1,000 words, the chapters of Victorian Mistress and Nine Shillings are under 1,500 words, but I wouldn’t call myself a flash fiction writer. However, a short story can in fact be quite long, perhaps even as long as 15,000 words but as I’m going to discuss short fiction in terms of helping develop our editing skills the shorter the better.

When we decide to write a short story the first problem that presents itself is fitting, the story, enough context and the characters into our word count. This means in some ways we’re more limited than in a novel because we have to keep everything short, fewer characters, less exposition, and words to a minimum. Normally I would tell a writer that word count as they’re writing isn’t important but when we’re writing a short story of less than 2,000 words every word over the limit is a word we have to cut. This doesn’t mean we can’t go over the limit and then cut back but this awareness is important when we’re developing our self-editing skills. If we’re aware of the number of words we’re using for the short story we begin mentally editing before we set words on the page.

This might sound daunting but when I talk about mentally self-editing what we’re putting on the page what I mean is largely exposition related. If we know we can’t go over 2,000 words do we need to include that brief bit of exposition about the protagonist’s childhood? Does it have any relevance to the story we’re telling? Is it slowing the pace? And so on. Obviously when we begin writing short fiction these are skills we don’t have, we’ll invariably go over the limit and have to cut back. This is how we learn these skills.

We begin by aiming for 2,000 words which, especially if we’re coming from a novel background we’ll probably miss, sometimes we might even come in way under because we’re too conscious of word count. Every word over or under is a point of consideration. Either we’re considering what parts of the story we can cut down or where we can build it out. Remember, we have 2,000 words to utilise and how well written a story is isn’t dictated by how many words under we are. How good a story is depends on how we use the words. We can write a truly great story that’s only 500 words long, but that doesn’t mean every 500 word story is a great story.

What we’re aiming for in a short story is to tell the maximum amount of story in the minimum number of words. We hone our sentences to stop them becoming verbose, in editing we carefully trim the exposition, and we ruthlessly cut anything that isn’t pulling its weight. This is a terrifying prospect when we begin because it can seem so harsh which is why we practice writing short fiction to hone these skills rather than take a hatchet to our work first time.

Remember, the last story we write will be better than the first because of what that first story taught us.


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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2 Comments

  1. As someone who loves writing short stories, I’m ashamed to say that I struggle with them in the sense that I feel mine are too short. Aiming for 2000 words seems reasonable. But a part of me wants more. I read stories from other writers and they’re very lengthy; almost like reading chapters. I feel ashamed sharing my stuff because they come out to about five to six pages. But maybe that’s fine. I need to be proud of what I write, no matter the length.

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