Many varying ideas exist about the ideal lengths of short stories, but no unanimous consensus exists about short story length. Writers and other literary types both in and out of academia have posited various theories about the hierarchy of story length. While it might not be possible to capture all of the numerous subgenres of narrative fiction that have been imagined, here is a brief list of the more common types of stories, organized by length from shortest to longest:
• Under 1000: Flash fiction, or “short short” stories
• 1,000-7,500: Short story
• 7,500-20,000: Novelette
• 20,000-50,000: Novella
• Over 50,000: Novel
Some people would seem to want to categorize a particular story strictly by its length. That is, if a story is 40,000 words in length, for example, it should be categorized as a novel. Or, if as story contains fewer than 2,000 words, it would automatically be considered flash fiction or a short short story. While organizing stories by their length in this manner would at least lend some clarity on the issue, the unfortunate reality is that this type of understanding is too simplistic to provide an adequate understanding of the differences between these subgenres. Length is certainly a factor in the categorization of fiction, but it is not the deciding factor in what constitutes a short story, or in what constitutes any other subgenre, for that matter.
Many writers would seem to agree that the more important consideration in determining what makes a short story is that of content. It may be very clear to some that anything longer than 40,000 or 50,000 words is a novel, the content of the work itself can help distinguish a novel from a novella. Novels tend to contain more characters and subplots, and very often deal with a number of complex issues. A novella, on the other hand, may be more focused on some particular point or single issue, not containing the variety of subplots that would be found in a novel.
Similarly, a short story differs from the novel and the novella not just as in terms of length, but also in what it is meant to accomplish. Short stories are usually meant to be an exploration of a particular type of situation or set of circumstances. In a story that is short enough to be read in a single sitting, the reader is introduced to a handful or more of characters and to whatever particular scenario the story happens to be “about.” But then, because every author sets out to accomplish different goals when writing their short stories, the story may or may not turn out to be “about” anything at all, but instead is a sketch of characters and situations presented with a particular type of language or tone. Either way, short stories do not tend to be of such a length that they are able to contain the extended meditations on a subject like a novella or the complex subplots of a novel.
One final consideration that may come to bear on the length of the short story is the intended means of publication. Authors writing stories that they hope to see published in journals or magazines, for example, may find it necessary to rein in their stories to a certain length in order to be more suitable for publication. Students of writing may find that themselves striving hard to pad the word count of their short story length in order to meet a minimum length requirement for a class. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: a short story is, by definition, short. The question of how short is short enough and not too short, however, is one that hasn’t been settled.