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What Is Short Fiction?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Short fiction, sometimes called the short story, is a popular form of written literature. Short stories must tell a complete story, including set-up, conflict, and resolution, in a brief form, often less than 10,000 words. In the mid-20th century, short fiction was one of the most popular forms of written entertainment. Many great writers have produced short stories in addition to, or instead of, longer work. Other forms of short fiction are found in media such as audio drama and comic books.

Short fiction was not established as a literary genre until the 19th century. Before that time, short narratives appeared in the form of fables, songs, and poems. In the 1800s, magazines that published chapters of ongoing serial novels also included self-contained stories, and writers began creating work to fill their pages. Early masters of the short story included Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and American authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe also wrote an 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” that discussed his approach to the short story.

Short fiction is not merely a matter of length. There are certain aesthetic standards established by these earlier writers that apply to most short stories. The writer must be able to establish characters, mood and setting in no more than a few paragraphs. These early paragraphs, and particularly the first line, must capture and hold the reader’s attention. With limited space, the writer must ensure that each individual word moves the story forward, or is otherwise essential; this requires some mastery of literary technique.

Masters of the short story include Russian writer Anton Chekhov and Americans John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Other writers were adept at both short and long-form works, including Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and James Joyce. In the years after World War II, short fiction thrived in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. Meanwhile, other magazines published short stories in popular genres such as mystery and science fiction. These latter magazines included early short fiction by highly regarded writers like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King.

The actual length of short fiction is not established and is often determined by the editor of a particular publication. Most sources offer a limit somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 words. Others will accept anything up to 20,000 words, after which the story is regarded as a novella, or short novel. Stories that are shorter than 1,000 words, sometimes much shorter, have developed a form of their own, the short-short story, sometimes called flash fiction. Masters of this form can create characters, plot, and a satisfying resolution in a space shorter than this page.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Feb 08, 2014

@bythewell - Short fiction writing contests do tend to be a bit hit or miss in my experience though. You have to do your research on the judge in order to make sure you're submitting work that they will even consider. And they can be expensive.

I'd still rather submit my stories to magazines, even if there aren't a lot of professionally paying ones left. And there is also supposed to be a bit of a market if you self-publish longer shorts and novellas, but I've never tried that so I can't speak to how true that is.

By bythewell — On Feb 08, 2014

@Mor - I think short fiction stories are just so easily available that people don't want to pay for a collection, unless it's someone they already love. Most of the time a collection contains stories that have been published elsewhere. So if they are following a genre, there's a good chance they've already read most of the stories.

With that said, I have heard of collections that haven't done too badly recently, particularly when they are based on a theme. The Machine of Death collection, for example, did really well and it was a very interesting collection.

I think "Best Of..." collections also do OK, or they wouldn't always be putting them out.

And there are definitely a lot of contests out there for authors to enter their short stories.

By Mor — On Feb 07, 2014

I think it's too bad that it's become almost impossible to make a living writing short fiction alone. There are some amazing shorts out there, with stories that just wouldn't be possible in a longer format, and I feel like authors are simply not encouraged to write short fiction now.

I know this has got more to do with the appetites of the public and that collections of short stories rarely sell well, but surely there is some way to change that? I hardly ever seen any advertising for short story collections, so maybe that is what leads to the poor sales.

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