In perhaps the most famous extreme example of a short story, Ernest Hemingway supposedly won a bet to make grown men cry with these six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Though the accuracy of Hemingway’s authorship is questionable, the point is made: writers can do a whole lot with very few words.
Of course, most short stories are quite a bit longer than just six words—but how long should a short story be? There’s no hard definition, though short stories, which are generally published in magazines or in collections with other stories, are usually meant to be read in a single sitting.
Super short stories, or those that are under 1000 words, are sometimes referred to as “flash fiction.” If you’re looking for a maximum short story length, you should know that most literary magazines won’t publish a story longer than 10,000 words. This works out to about 32-40 standard book pages, depending on font size, and would take the average reader about 40 minutes to finish.
However, most short story lengths are even more concise than that, keeping their word counts under 7,500, and the “time to read” under a half hour: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is just over 6,000 words; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a svelte (and shocking) 3,378 words; O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is just 2,175 words.
All of these examples are well under the standards for a novel, which usually have a minimum of 50,000 words—that’s about 200 pages.
Naturally, there’s a lot of leeway between 10,000 words and 50,000 words—and that’s where novellas come in. Author Ian McEwan, a big fan of the medium, told The New Yorker in 2012 that novellas are typically between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Stories between 10,000 and 20,000 words are referred to as “novelettes.”
Modern publishers tend to shy away from novellas, likely because people balk at paying full price for such slim volumes. Even Stephen King had a hard time getting his novellas published, though he as able to convince his published by including four in one volume. The 1982 collection known as Different Seasons includes the stories that would be adapted into the films Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. In the afterword, King wrote that he “had gotten to a place where people were saying King could publish his laundry list if he wanted to… but I couldn’t publish these tales because they were too long to be short and too short to be really long. If you see what I mean.”
Though publishers still tend to resist novellas, some of the most popular writings in the world occupy that sweet spot between short stories and novels. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are all famous examples of novellas, and remain popular on high school reading lists, no doubt in part because their short length makes them well-suited to classroom discussions.