Short Story Writing Project: What is a Short Story?

What is the definition of a short story?

I define a short story as a brief, focused fictional piece that contains at minimum the following key elements: plot, setting, characterization and some sort of resolution.

How long should a short story be?

In my opinion, the optimal length for a short story is between ten and fifty double-spaced pages of text. To me, anything longer than this is a novella (a short novel). Some other ways of defining the length of a short story are:

  • Short stories are short enough to be read in a single sitting (from a half hour two hours). This definition can be traced back to Edgar Allen Poe, one of the first great short story writers.
  • Short stories are less than 5000 words.
  • Short stories are shorter than a novel.

How is a short story different from a novel?

In my opinion, the true difference between a short story and a novel is that a short story has a unity of theme, character and plot that is much more focused than a novel. Here are some other ways of stating the difference:

  • Short stories tend to concentrate on one major event or conflict.
  • Short stories have only one or two main characters.
  • Short stories create a single specific effect.
  • Short stories are more compressed than novels.
  • Short stories do not have sub-plots.

What are the minimum elements of a short story?

In my opinion, a short story has all of the elements of a novel. Specifically, they tell a story, as the name suggests. One or more characters experience an event or conflict, and that event or conflict has an observable effect on the character or characters. This differentiates a short story from a character sketch, which serves only to illustrate or flesh out a character. It also differentiates a short story from anecdotes or parables, which are often amusing or demonstrate a lesson, but which do not necessarily call for a character to be changed in any real way.

What kind of short stories are there?

Short stories are as varied as novels. They can come from such genres as horror, fantasy, romance, erotica, adventure and science fiction. They can be action packed and exciting or introspective and philosophical. They can be romantic, sexy, satirical, cynical, bleak or optimistic.

I tend to write what are called literary short stories. Literary short stories focus more on character and tone than plot. In most cases they avoid other genres. I also tend to include a lot of humor in my stories, often unintentionally. That is simply my style. Your style can be whatever you want it to be.

What are some good short stories that I can read online to get myself ready for this project?

The downside of the web is that most of the stories we can access by major authors are older, public domain stories. With that said, I found a nice variety of short stories to get people started.

How do YOU define a short story?

It’s your turn to speak up. Please leave your own definition of a short story in the notes below or at least comment on my definition. Feel free to mention your favorite short stories.

16 thoughts on “Short Story Writing Project: What is a Short Story?

  1. I tend to like the classic short stories that have some sort of epiphany. It doesn’t have to be all wrapped up neat and tidy, but I am having a hard time appreciating-and even fully understanding-many of the stories published in the most current “Best American Short Stories” books each year that don’t seem to have much of a point. Certainly, Poe’s stories didn’t have happy endings, but there was generally some kind of moral or realization at the end. I like the stories of Poe, O’Henry, Hawthorne, Maupassant, and a more contemporary author, Jeffrey Archer. I wonder what others think about this?

  2. I’m currently reading a collection of short stories “A Decade of Fantasy and Science Fiction”. I have to say that the best of these stories are the ones that you think about long after you’ve finished reading them. The other kicker to this book is that the decade it covers is the 1950′s. Its so weird to be living in the time that the author is writing about. But the really good ones are timeless.

  3. Hi Rhonda,

    I agree that some modern stories don’t have obvious moments of epiphany. Usually though, they are there if you look deeply enough. The problem is, how deeply should a reader have to look just to get something out of a story? I think it is possible for a writer to get too caught up in the art of a story and lose the reader along the way.

  4. Hi Richard,

    Older science fiction can be quite interesting. I think we tend to get caught up in the gadgetry, when we think about older stories, and ignore the more universal themes. The best writers weren’t looking to wow us with the cool stuff that we would have in the future, they were looking to explore the bigger themes that come along with greater technology and new discoveries.

    That said, I’m still waiting for my jet pack.

  5. Pingback: Short Story Writing Project: Clear-cut versus obscure | Writer's Resource Center
  6. Hi Jennifer,

    There are varying definitions. The 5000 word limit is a very common limit for short story contests and publications. I have seen novellas defined as being as short at 7,500 words. It can be very difficult to publish a short story of over 5000 words because it simply takes up too much room in a print publication.

    Here is a web definition that sets the length of a short story at 5000 words:

    “a piece of fictional writing usually less than 5000 words that contains these basic elements: characters, setting, plot, conflict, resolution, climax, dialogue, protagonist, and antagonist”

  7. Hi John,

    May I ask where you arrived at the 5,000 word limit? Is that a personal limitation? Personally, I’d consider stories even much longer than that as short stories.

    It’s difficult to define them by word count, since most sources won’t give a hard number to their definitions. A Glossary of Literary Terms by Robert Harris is the only text book I know that gives a word count, and even then states it’s a ‘rule of thumb’ that a short story be 20,000 words or fewer. That correlates closely with The Nebula Awards (for science-fiction stories, bringing it back around to earlier discussion), which define the ‘novella’ as 17,500 to 40,000 words (so a short story would be fewer than 17,500).

  8. Hi John,
    You bring up a good point in response to my post. I suppose that-for my personal taste-I prefer not to have to try too deeply in order to “get” something from a short story. I hope I don’t sound too simplistic-I enjoy reading things that are challenging-but this is usually the case with a novel rather than a short story. I suppose I desire more instant gratification when enjoying a story that doesn’t take very long to read!

  9. Short stories and novels should all contain the elements of setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. However, short stories have to progress through those more quickly than novels, in which the author can spend quite a bit more time developing the setting and context. Short stories can be nonfiction.

  10. I have been on a kick of late which places more emphasis, and frankly, more responsibility on the reader. Writers take so much time to craft their stories, it only seems appropriate that we bestow a near equal amount of care in considering their works.

    This need not be taxing however. Try to read a story like you listen to a piece of music. Perhaps you pick up the bass line or rhythm section at first, and then move to the trumpet, or piano, or vocal section or what have you. I find this technique helps me to read difficult stories without a sense of tediousness, and similarly to read seemingly simple stories with a great degree of depth.

    Let’s face it, with so much to read, unless we really put ourselves to it, we won’t reread a short story as many times as it needs and deserves.

  11. I believe what distinguishes a short story from a novel is the focus. Most short stories I have ready are tightly focused on one issue/conflict. The efficiency of the writing lending to a shorter piece of work. I am not sure that a word count should be in the definition, but it is definately meant to be read in one sitting. With our faster paced society and the greter demand supon time, the amount of time an individual may dedicate to a sitting has dramatically decreased of late. I believe this is what gives rise to the ‘shortening’ of the stories.

    To illustrate the difference between a timeless short story and a novel, I would suggest you consider Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘Nightfall’. Briefly: in a world of 5 suns, darkness is never experienced. What happens when all the suns are eclipsed? The story is a facinating exploration of how we deal with the unknown. It is clear, concise, and very memorable.

    So memorable that John Silverburg jointly with Asimov, expanded the short story into a novel of the same title. In the novel, they authors added expository material and really gave you a feel for the society, gave you a greater sense of the charaters. They added richness with lead up to the cataclysimic event, and after the cataclysmic event explored the reactions to a greater depth.

    Is the story the same? Yes.
    The novel is far righter, having greater detail and clarity. Both are memorable and both are enjoyable.

  12. I’m a newly minted English teacher with a background in law and sociology (as opposed to, say, er, Literature). I have been trying to find some kind of definitive collection of “the best” short stories, and am having some trouble finding what appears to be that. What would you recommend as the best short stories of all-time? I would love to find some more contemporary ones, but want to stick with those that adhere to the traditionally recognized format.

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