I write and read short stories and novels—and I like both for different reasons.
I find short stories easier to write, but I enjoy writing novels and novellas a lot more. I also love reading novels, but in recent months my reading time has been severely limited, so short stories make up the majority of my reading list right now.
All About The Word Count
I’ve noticed in the past that a lot of people write off short stories as second best—not on the same level as novels.
There are many reasons for people to claim this, but my own personal guess is that it’s because word count feels like it’s everything.
The idea of authors publishing long novels with word counts of over 50,000 words is so romanticized in the modern writing community that I suppose the thought of writing a short story with “a mere few thousand words” isn’t quite as impressive anymore.
What Makes A Good Story?
Truthfully, I shared that same view for a while myself. I thought writing short stories was purely a way to practice writing so I could write longer stories (writing short stories is great practice, by the way).
So which is better? Short stories, or novels? And ultimately…how long does a story need to be in order to be considered “good”?
Novels are known for their length—perfect to read on a rainy afternoon, curled up on the couch with a cup of coffee or tea—not so perfect to read during your commute, school, work, or other responsibilities. Some short stories/flash fictions are over 5,000 words, while others are as short as six words, so you could reasonably read a few throughout the day or between daily activities.
One thing that I love about novels is that they take me away to different times and places—I can see situations play out that I never would have dreamed of. By the time I’m done reading, I’m usually so immersed in the story’s world that it takes me a while to come back to reality.
Short stories usually don’t have the luxury of slowly sucking a reader into the story’s world over time. With just a few thousand words, short stories need to capture a reader’s attention and keep it till the very end.
Even if the short story takes place in a fantasy world or alternate reality, the short story has to plunge the reader into the story world right away without taking the time to subtly show or explain every detail.
Since short stories are short, any world-building included usually needs to be clear enough that the reader will understand it quickly/easily. With novels, readers are expected to learn how the world works as they go, over the course of the entire story.
I think my one major complaint about short stories is the characters. If a short story features characters that I really like, it’s rather sad when you get to the end of the short story and that’s it. There’s a lot you never get to learn about the characters.
Novels allow readers to get to know the characters on a deeper level for a longer period of time.
I find it easier to think about the themes I find in short stories than in novels. In novels, the themes are woven and hidden behind a lot of world-building, characters, descriptions, and plot points. I may acknowledge that they’re there, but I’m usually not lying awake in bed at 3am thinking about the novel’s themes (except for a few earth-shattering exceptions, that is).
With most short stories, themes appear to be central to the plot/concept. In many short stories I’ve read, the majority of the descriptions, characters, and dialogue seem to be focused on the themes, so by the time I’m done with the story, it’s the only thing on my mind.
I think we’ve all had this experience…
You start reading a story and it’s really interesting—the plot, characters, descriptions, and worldbuilding are amazing! You continue reading, only to find that the story has the worst ending you could have imagined…
This can certainly happen in both short stories and novels. The only difference is how much time it takes you to read and find out the story has a terrible ending.
Hint: it takes far less time to read a short story than it does a novel.
At the end of the day, a story can be good or bad regardless of its length. I’ve learned from personal experience that trying to stretch a concept that would make a great short story out into a 60,000-word novel doesn’t work well, and neither does taking a complicated plot and trying to shove it into a 1,500-word short story.
Stories should be as long or short as they need to be—so there’s no need to stress out if the stories you write don’t have the highest word count.
What Are Your Standards?
I always thought that since the publishing industry has word count standards, I had to do my absolute best to meet those standards. But if I focus solely on getting a bunch of words onto the page rather than telling a great story, then I’ve already failed by my own standards—industry aside.
A story isn’t bad just because it’s short, or good just because it’s long. The best stories (long and short) that I’ve ever read have two things in common.
They all had interesting concepts, and the writers executed the concepts well in their writing.
Before You Go…
What are your thoughts on short stories? Do you enjoy reading or writing them?
Let me know down in the comments!
Want to read a short story I wrote? Click here to read my newest published short story Home!
Looking For More Inspiration?
I have a gift for you! Subscribe to my newsletter to receive a free book of 50 fantasy dialogue prompts!
Great article, Thirzah! I prefer short stories to read, and long stories to drive in the car on long trips with. As far as writing, I have only ever written short stories, mainly in the interest of time, and also because I’m used to visual art, where the becoming of a thing is rather swift and satisfying. Perhaps one day I will go back to reading long novels, and maybe one day writing them. Thanks again for making us think!