Knitting words

What is a short story and how long should a short story be…?

IMG_2067‘A short story is a work of fiction, often in narrative format that is shorter than a novel in length but longer than a novella. The elements of a short story are: setting, conflict, theme, character, plot and point of view.’

This is pretty much the first answer I got when I typed the phrase ‘short story’ into Google and I grant you – it’s pretty good as definitions go.

However (and there’s always an ‘however’) – it’s still a little vague and that’s both good and bad if you’re on a mission to produce the perfect short story… In my quest to create an abundance of short stories this year, which is intertwined with my Arts Council funding and my genuine desire to write good fiction, I find myself pondering the art form that is the short story more and more.Arts Council logo

Most short story competitions ask for tales which stand at around the 2,000 – 3,000 word mark and this is what I’d tended to think of when considering the short story form before now. Then I happened across a competition (albeit a pretty high-brow one for the likes of amateur me…), which specified up to 15,000 or so words!

So… What’s a writer to do?!

James Joyce (by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915)

James Joyce (by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915)

I mentioned last week that short stories should stop when you feel they can go on no more, but sometimes it can be tricky to find that point. I finished the draft of a story today (the one which I started last week) and feel I could have gone on, but didn’t want to labour the point. Perhaps I’ll add to it in the edit (I probably will), but as it stands, it’s around the 3,000 word mark, which I’m happy enough with for now. Perhaps it’s because the story I wrote just before it came in at around 5,000 – 6,000 words and now this one feels too short. The message for this particular story however, works better I think in this shorter format, so hopefully it’ll pack more of a punch.

Then there’s the story form. A friend recently commented on a short story they had submitted to a journal, which was rejected, and which had, according to my friend, included suitable scene-setting, conflict and conclusion. This is where I stopped to think.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Writing can be too formulaic and I know there are ‘rules’ to creating the perfect story, but think of Joyce and Woolf, to name but two. I love their meandering tales of rich narrative, which weave in and out of characters’ comings and goings, inner thoughts and emotions, actions and the consequences of these, but which don’t necessarily have a big ‘defining moment’ or ending. They show life, they taper off at the end and I like that.

In fact, I think I tend to write in a similar style – descriptive prose which can go off on a tangent depending on where my character’s thoughts take them. I understand this sort of writing is not to everyone’s taste, but it intrigues me. I like to get into people’s heads and explore.

The beauty of the short story for me, is having the chance to knit together rich, evocative words to create stories of substance, style and intrigue. Not to show all, not to conclude all, but to suggest, to begin to paint a picture and to spark off a sense of wonder and involvement on behalf of the reader. A neat ending can work well of course, but sometimes short stories simply allow you to trespass into the mind of a character; allow you to wander into a scene which is already well underway, and then bid you farewell with not so much as a denouement in sight.

What is a short story and how long should a short story be…?

You decide.



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5 responses to “Knitting words

  1. Having begun at the beginning with Dylan Thomas, I associate short stories with being three or four or five pages long. So I always find myself checking length before I begin- a terrible habit.
    Reading fiction on a phone is a headache causes by not having the ruler of pages to judge things by.
    Great article.

    • Hi Glyn, Thanks for the comment. I’m the same, to be honest, in that I usually count the number of pages I think I need to fill before starting a new story. With my last story I didn’t do this and it came in shorter as a result. I think if I know I have more pages to fill, I just keep writing, but then perhaps I’m writing simply to complete the word count, when the story could be shorter. On the other hand, I like the boundary of a set number of pages but don’t want to be overly prescriptive in my writing. Perhaps I’m analysing it too much!

  2. TU

    Interesting post. I wonder if stories should be driven by the purist need to tell a tale or the commercial reality of writing to fill a slot, or perhaps the only real answer is the story that does both? There’s writing — storytelling, and then there’s ‘being an author’ when you’ve found a home for your work. I’m still in the writing phase but imagine the planning and pruning will become a necessity at some point. Bit of a ‘meh’ prospect.

    • Hi Tracey – thanks for reading and commenting on the post! Yes, it’s a tricky one I think. Especially with some competitions, there’s more of a prescribed notion of how your short story should look, when word counts and even themes sometimes are given, but when it’s left open to you to create what you want, I think it’s both exciting and a bit confusing. If you then want to submit your work to a journal or competition afterwards, the story will no doubt have to be changed to meet their specifications (although this may not always be the case, granted), and so it might then lose its essence. I prefer the idea of writing the story you want to write and forgetting about ‘marketability’, but then that all depends, I guess, on what you want to do with it. I’d like to think that a good story would stand up on its own, regardless of whether it’s on trend or written following a traditional formula though! PS Your site is also very interesting 🙂