How Short Is Short Fiction?

By Maeve Maddox

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Readers and listeners have enjoyed short fiction since antiquity, but the Web reveals an enthusiastic surge of interest in it, along with various terms to describe it.

The traditional term for fiction shorter than a novelette (7,500—20,000 words) is “short story.” In the old days, short stories in print magazines averaged about 7,500 words. Some magazines published “short-shorts,” stories that topped out at 1,000 words and could be contained on a single page of the periodical.

Nowadays, several terms are vying for the job of describing short fiction:

flash fiction
micro narrative
postcard fiction
short short
short short story
sudden fiction
quick fiction
hint fiction
nano fiction

The term “short-short” has not vanished, but “flash fiction” has overtaken it in popularity. Not everyone agrees, however, as to the length of “flash fiction.”

The magazine Flash Fiction Online defines its product as stories in the 500—1,000- word range.

An article at The Review Review [sic] glosses “flash fiction” as “stories under 2,000 words.” According to this count, O. Henry’s “The Magi” is just seventy words over the count to qualify as flash fiction.

David Gaffney, a British writer who has published a collection of fifty-eight 150-word stories, uses the terms “flash fiction” and “micro-fiction” interchangeably to describe his short narratives.

Australian writer Lee Masterson offers these criteria:

Micro-Fiction: up to 100 words
Flash Fiction: 100-1,000 words
Short Story: 1,000-7,500 words

I read of one writer whose flash fiction story consisted of the title only.

Whatever you call it, short fiction is enjoying a surge of popularity with writers who delight in the challenge of seeing how few words they can use to create a story. I have no statistics as to whether large numbers of readers share their enthusiasm.

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4 Responses to “How Short Is Short Fiction?”

  • thebluebird11

    No offense to you, Maeve, since I don’t mean to shoot the messenger, but is it me, or is this splitting hairs? I am not getting it. Someone who is counting words and pages, trying to pigeonhole a creative work, is not paying attention to the story. What practical difference does it make how long or short a written work is, and using that criterion to decide what to call it? Obviously not much, since there are so many terms for these things, everything is an approximation. and one persons nano-fiction might be another person’s letter-to-the-editor. I understand that for publishing purposes, one needs to count words/pages to see what might fit in a magazine or figure out production costs of a book. But for your average person (here I include myself), a book is a book, a story is a story, a mag article is a mag article. Some books are fatter and some are thinner. The length or width of the book, the font size or typeface will not affect my decision to read it or not. When the Harry Potter series came out, the longer the better…I didn’t want the story to end. When it came to my school textbooks, the shorter the better. Other than that, it is what it is. If an author has something to say and can say it well, no matter the subject, I don’t count the number of words, I just read and enjoy.

  • venqax

    Take your post, bluebird: In the beginning add “Once upon a time someone said:”. Then at the end put, “And when they finished saying it, they sat down and drank some tea”. There. Flash-fiction.

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: Did I ever tell you how wonderful you are!

  • Maeve

    No offense taken. Seems to me that all this is pretty arbitrary, but some people obsess over it. To be fair, length does matter in certain contexts. For example, I may have written a mystery that comes to 70,000 words, but when I go to submit to a particular publisher, I discover this particular publisher’s minimum-length requirement for a mystery is 75,000 words. Bummer.l

    I agree with you that length doesn’t matter to inveterate readers.
    Bwt, I also share your sentiment regarding venqax.

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