My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?
So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.
From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:
- Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
- The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
- The Answer is No: 1600 words
- The Time and the Place: 3600 words
- Blessed Night: 3600 words
- The Ditch: 2600 words
- Half a Day: 1600 words
- The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
- The Lawsuit: 2200 words
- The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
- A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
- By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
- The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
- The Wasteland: 3600 words
- The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
- His Majesty: 1200 words
- Fear: 4400 words
- At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
- A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
- A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words
That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.
Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:
- Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
- The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
- The End of Something: 1050 words
- The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
- The Battler: 3150 words
- A Very Short Story: 700 words
- Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
- The Revolutionist: 350 words
- Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
- Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
- Out of Season: 2100 words
- Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
- My Old Man: 4200 words
- Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
- Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
- L’Envoi: 150 words
That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.
So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.
I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.