What is a Short Story?

You would think that was an easy question to answer: a short story is a story that is short. Nevertheless, academics have been arguing for years about what constitutes a “story”, as different from an anecdote or vignette, and what constitutes “short” – 500 words? 1500? 25,000? For our purposes, we will keep things simple (just don’t tell the academics!): a short story focusses on a limited number of characters and recounts a specific incident, and is anything from a few hundred words to 10,000 words in length.

In a novel, the writer has a lot of freedom: there are hundreds of pages to introduce and develop the characters and plot (and usually many secondary characters and subplots), to describe the setting in detail, and to leap around in time and space, with one chapter perhaps set in 1920s Casablanca, and the next in 1980s Sydney.

A short story has to be much more concentrated because it is much shorter than a novel: generally, a short story will follow a limited number of characters over a limited period of time in a limited number of settings. Don’t let that word “limited” put you off though: it is actually very useful for a writer to have some limits to work within, and the possibilities for stories within these limits are actually limitless.

In summary, a short story

  • is economical; every word counts
  • concentrates on one incident
  • has a tightly focussed plot with a clear beginning, middle and end
  • has a small cast of characters
  • uses only one setting, or not much more than one
  • develops and explores only one theme, or not many more than one

On the one hand, keeping this focus can make short stories challenging to write, but on the other hand it is easier to keep track of a few characters over a short period of time, compared to many characters over a long period of time, which is the case in most novels. It is actually not unusual for a short story to turn into a novel, when a writer realises that their idea is too big for just a few thousand words, and needs more room.

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