Short Story Writing

What Is A Story, Anyway, And Who Gets To Decide?

In a sense, we all get to decide what a story is. Writers decide every time they sit down at their keyboards. Editors decide by choosing what to publish in their books and magazines. And readers—those wonderful people—decide with their wallets and their time.

Edgar Allan Poe said a short story should be “no longer than can be read in a single sitting,” which seems a good rule of thumb. In more concrete terms, a quick look through Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market reveals that a majority of magazines are open to stories of five thousand words (roughly twenty double-spaced pages), though many prefer shorter work and a few are open to longer work. (This is where the editors really get their say.)

At STORY, most of the work we published fell somewhere between three and six thousand words, with our limit being eight thousand. In truth, we very rarely published work that long. The question we faced was: “Do we publish this eight-thousand word story that we love, or do we publish these two four-thousand word stories that we love?”

Past a certain point, then, length is your enemy—at least in the marketplace. But what’s good for the marketplace isn’t necessarily good for your fiction. And despite many editors’ preference for shorter work, it’s worth noting that several of the stories chosen each year for The Best American Short Stories tend to be on the long side.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is really no limit as to how short a story may be, so long as it gets the job done. As you move into the lower realms of the word count, though, you start to get into sub-genres of the story-short-shorts, “flash fiction,” “micro fiction,” or “sudden fiction.” In the past fifteen years or so, these sub-genres have developed into forms unto themselves, with conventions slightly different than are found in traditional short stories.

The story you’ll be writing for this workshop should fall between 2,000 and 4,500 words.

This partial lecture came from the Short Story Fundamentals workshop. Learn more about the class!

Short story writing is fun!

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