Short Stories That Are Too Short

Last semester I took part in a creative-writing class of about seventeen people, including our instructor. This class taught me many things about writing and gave me several new insights into my craft as well as many new tools to write more compelling and interesting stories. It also gave me a few ideas for articles, such as this one:

My classmates and I each had to turn in three short stories during the semester (two original short stories and one edited story). A few times people turned in stories that were really short and just had the barebones of a story. There were numerous reasons for why one or another student would turn in stories like that, with very little meat to it if any. Usually it was something along the lines of having their deadline sneak up on them and rushing to get something written and printed before class (I remember one girl was actually stapling the typo-plagued copies of her story together in the first few minutes of class before she turned it in. She later said that she’d rushed to get the story done, and had spent the first hour or so just wondering what the first few words should be. We all laughed at that, mostly because we’d all been there at one point or another).

However while other students were pressed for time, one or two said they were afraid that if they wrote anything longer it would be too long! When we heard this, we often told the student that their fear of making the story too long had actually made it far too short.

I’ve always defined a short story as between a thousand and ten-thousand words. This leaves a lot of room to work with, even for authors such as myself who are better suited to more expansive works like novels. Yet a lot of authors fear that getting close to twenty-five hundred words is going too far, getting too long, crossing into a territory reserved only for longer projects. Why?

I think it might have something to do with magazines and getting published in them. Many magazines, especially ones that pay, have a maximum word-limit, usually around five-thousand words or so. This creates pressure on the author who wants to be published. They want a wonderful and engaging story but at the same time they’re hampered by the feeling that they can’t go over a certain word limit or they won’t get published in this or that magazine. Even self-published authors aren’t immune to this: many indie authors write stories and send them out to magazines, often to get people to read their work, along with maybe a desire for income and maybe a small wish to show the critics of self-publishing that we can get published in the same magazines as traditional published authors and still have quality work.

The thing is, a story is going to be the length it needs to be. You can’t help it. Twice I’ve thought up and even written short stories that turned out that they needed to novels. And even when a short story manages to stay a short story, I find that a story that needs to expand to four or five thousand words or more is going to expand that length. As much as you try, you won’t get it down to twenty-five hundred without sacrificing quality. At least, not very easily.

I usually end up writing short stories between four and five thousand words. In fact, I try to make sure they stay that length. I’ve tried for shorter but that usually doesn’t happen, and longer stories do sometimes happen, though they often get shorter when I start to edit. The thing is, these stories are going to be as long as they need to be and sometimes you have to accept that. If you want to write a story that’s shorter than what you usually write, do it more as an exercise, as a way to get better at saying something in less words than normal. Don’t feel like you have to make a story shorter, but just try and see if you can. And if you can’t, don’t feel disappointed about it. Just meant that story wasn’t meant to be that short.

And if you’re worried about getting published, there are plenty of magazines, anthologies, contests, and podcasts that accept longer short stories and even short novelettes. Just do your research, you’ll find them. Or don’t go looking for them at all, but try and put together a collection of short stories. You have full creative control then and can make your stories whatever length you desire.

Or perhaps short stories aren’t your thing. They’re certainly not my area of expertise, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Either way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of authors don’t do short stories and they’re excellent. Just stick to your area of strength and see what amazing stuff you can do there.

But if you do endeavor to create amazing short stories, just remember not to let the length of your story become an inhibition and a drag rather than a tool for successful writing. As I and my classmates have learned, length is important, but it’s by far not the most important thing to keep in mind. That would be the story itself.

 

On an unrelated note, thanks to Ruth Ann Nordin for the new background on this site. I was kind of attached to the old one, but I like what’s here now. It’s warm and welcoming, if you ask me.

12 Comments

  1. The funny thing I started out writing novels – I couldn’t get the hang of a short story. Then I joined some groups in 2009 and after that had short story writing challenges for wordcounts anything from 1,000 to 500 😮 I had a really hard time trying to tell a story in so few words, but after awhile I started finding that I could do it in 800 words or less (not complex stories, of course) and eventually made the 500 word goal on a few. Now I have a hard time with longer short stories. i tend to cap out at around 3,000 words or else it’s a novel – like there’s no in between, LOL!

    1. I wish I could learn how to do that! Getting compelling short stories that short would be great!

  2. M T McGuire says:

    I needed to read this today, expressly the bit about it being as long as it needs to be. I’m writing a thing at the moment which may hit 65 or 70k …. May. I was worried that it is too short. I normally write novels at 120k but if this one is shorter well… It just is.

    Sorry, I know that’s not a short story comment but thanks anyway.

    Cheers

    MTM

    1. The concept applies. A story will be the length it needs to be. Good luck with your story.

  3. I like this. The story is meant to be the length it’s going to be. I’ve been experimenting with flash fiction. I did manage to do one complete story, but most of them turn out to be 2000 word pieces that are really a scene that leads to another book I did. I’m taking these and adding them to my email list so that when I have a new release, I can put this short piece in as a prequel to lead to the story.

    The one flash fiction piece that was a complete story is one I’m not sure what to do with. It’s more of a horror piece, so it has nothing to do with my usual genre. I was going to try to publish it in flash fiction magazine or self-publish it. If I could get a flash fiction piece that’s a romance, it make better sense to try for the magazine since then I can link it to my books. With the horror, I have nothing to market with it. So in my indecision, I’ve just been holding onto it.

    Do you have any advice?

    1. Well first, is it under a thousand words? If yes, then I might be able to help you.

        1. Excellent! Well, here’s my advise: obviously, you should try and tell the story in as few words as possible while making sure the reader can understand the actions and dialogue. But also you should try to create a dread-filled atmosphere if you can, something that lets us know this is scary. If you can do that, then you can try submitting to MicroHorror.com, they’re devoted to horror flash fiction, though they only do stories under 666 words (go figure!). Read what they publish there and see if your story matches. And if all goes well, let me know.

          1. LOL on the 666 words. I guess it fits perfectly. I had a hard time limiting it to 990 words. Hmm…. I’ll take a look at the site then see what I can do with the piece. Thanks!

            1. No problem. Hope it goes well. One of these days I’ll have to spend a bit of time on that website as well. I’ve tried to get published there, but so far no luck. Maybe a read-through will help me figure something out.

Comments are closed.