Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How long does a short story need to be?

Question: Many of my short stories are less than 500 words. People in my writers' group keep telling me they are too short. Is there a downward limit? Melanie....

Answer: What you are writing, Melanie, is called "flash fiction" and typically runs below 500 words for a story (some even define it as "less than 300 words." So no, the stories are not too short. In fact editors of little and literary magazines delight in them, as they can publish three new and promising writers of short, short fiction, instead of ONE with a 1500 word story. Most editors will not look at anything longer than 1500 words due to space restrictions and the cost of paper is rising all the time.

Most people have the exact opposite problem and their stories run far too long. I remember when I couldn’t write “Hello” without using 500 words. Writing short is good discipline and will serve you well in the future, even if you get around to those novels you were planning.

Ernest Hemingway once bet someone he could write an entire short story in six words. According to some, he was very drunk at the time and the other writers who hung around at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West were certain they would win.

“You need plot, a main character who changes, and a resolution,” they warned. Hard to do in six words. Everyone agreed it couldn’t be done and put a lot of money on that.

Hemingway who had been telling them all there was no such thing as writers' block and they could find stories anywhere, pointed to the classified section of the newspaper — and collected his bet.

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

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