What is a short story? Seriously. If you want to laugh, look in the dictionary where they define it as “a fictional work of prose that is shorter in length than a novel.” Now that’s as useful as a trap door on a lifeboat.
When I started to write short stories, I had to discover a host of things that narrows the definition further.
Edgar Alan Poe defined a short story as one a person could read at a single sitting. I think that’s still a pretty good definition, especially in this age of eBooks and commuting. Whether the reader is on the tread mill, or the commuter train this definition has at least some connection to the his/her reality.
For length, I think the best short story definition is the one that comes from the market place. In general, a story under a thousand words is call flash fiction. At the other end, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards define the novelette as having a word count of between 7,500 and 17,499, inclusive. So the top end for a short story (Stephen King excepted) is about 7500 words. However, there’s a sweet spot, depending on genre.
For YA fiction, the maximum length is about 2000 words. For crime, and horror short stories the sweet spot is between four and five thousand words. Why? Readers of these genres want a more complex plot.
Let’s start with 2500 words as the ideal length for a short story. Now what does that allow an author to write?
You can break a short story down into scenes. A scene is a part of the story with one setting and one time frame. Whenever you write ‘The next day’, or ‘at the saloon’ you have created a transition from one scene to another. You can have any number of scenes in your story, but there are some constraints. If your scenes are too short your story becomes choppy. If they are too long, the pace slows. Aim for around three paragraphs, or three to five hundred words per scene.
So the story is 2500 words in length with scenes of three to five hundred words, which gives you about five to eight scenes to tell your story. This is the point where a writer can feel the brevity of the short story. You don’t have much to work with.
Now a story plot needs an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. If you are missing any of those elements, your story won’t work. So you have to fit those plot components into your story scenes.
You also need a setting, characters, conflict and a theme.
This is why writing a good short story is so tricky; you have to put the elements in without scrimping, and without running out of space.
To see some of my short stories go to www.edwardmcdermott.net