Story Types: Short Stories

Short Stories, Storytelling, Thoughts on Writing, Writing Spot

A question I have been asked of late is, how does the industry define various story lengths? Or, perhaps more specifically, other than a novel, what types of story writing are there?

This is a more complex answer than it may appear.On the surface, we have two types of stories: the novel and the short story. This week, we will begin small with short story lengths.Next week, we will explore story lengths that land between novel and short story. Finally, we will talk about the novel. That will lead into a discussion about National Novel Writing Month. Stay tuned!

Short stories might be my favorite type of storytelling. In the matter of a few pages, we meet a character, invest in her story, and see the entire situation come to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.

In the past, short stories were published as serials in the newspaper. Like comics strips, we followed these characters week to week as they had adventure after adventure. Perhaps one of the reasons I love short stories is because I enjoy reading about Sherlock Holmes. A great example of a serial, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published tales about his famous detective in The Strand magazine for decades.

Today, the plight of the short story is hurt by the dwindling periodical market, but helped by the emergence of online ‘magazines’ or literary journals. Short stories can now come straight to your inbox, RSS feed, or social media account. Personally, I think short stories are of great benefit to society because they keep us reading, even in our busy lifestyles. (More on this next week when we take a peek at James Patterson’s take on this topic.)

Short stories are also great for young people. For the reluctant reader, short stories are a great way to keep them interested. They are short, quick, and intense. Also known as not over-whelming and able to fit with children and teen’s shorter attention spans. (Adults, too!) Plus, a periodic reader doesn’t have to remember where they were in a book, he or she can read an entire story in one sitting and pick up a new one whenever time permits.

So what makes up a short story?

There are several types of short stories. I’m not talking about genre. However, as a refresher, short stories usually come in two over-arching categories: Literary and Main-Stream. Literary short stories are character driven, concerned with inner change and moral lessons. Main-stream short stories are plot driven, showing what happens, solving a crime, or portraying a romance. Within main-stream fiction, there are dozens of genres just as there are in novels. These include horror, thrillers, mystery, romance, sci-fi, and  fantasy.

But to fully understand the short story world, type of short stories goes beyond genre. We have to look at word count.

The typical short story is an average of 7,500 words, or between 4,000 and 10,000 words. Anything over 10,000 and we reach a nether world we’ll talk about next week. In print form, a short story is between 16 and 40 pages. This is a somewhat signficant amount. With shortening attention spans or the desire to read a whole story in one sitting, we have to look at another type of short story.

What is shorter than a short story? There are several names for this type of story, sometimes just called a short, short story. It’s also called flash fiction or a smoke-long. This last name is actually the most descriptive. It refers to the amount of time it takes to smoke a cigarette. In other words, a short, short story should be able to be read during a smoke break. (For more flash fiction, take a look at COLR, a new online literary magazine that published my short, short story, “The Wrinkled Driver.”)

Short, short stories are usually between 500 and 4,000 words or 2-16 pages, with flash fiction or smoke-longs running closer to the 500-1000 word mark. But, with the advent of social media tidbits, we can find even shorter fiction.

Micro fiction is fun. Can you trim an entire and complete story down to between 140 characters and 100 words? For novel writers, being able to tell our entire story in that many words is vital to marketing, so why not practice by writing the shortest fiction out there? Many of us cannot tell a story to our friends without adding embellishing details, so writing micro fiction tests the best of us. Every word counts.

Storytelling has many forms. With our busy lifestyles, it can be hard to find time to read a whole book within a time frame where we remember the entire plot. With short stories, perhaps we would read more without feeling overwhelmed by the mammoth nature of a novel, especially an epic one. How many short stories have you read or written?


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