A Down and Dirty Guide to Short Form Fiction

by AH Plotts
published in Writing

Writing an entire novel is a lot of work, but it can be a truly satisfying accomplishment. Seeing your characters come to life, pursuing their primary motivations while overcoming (or not) their greatest obstacles, makes for some amazing storytelling when sustained for at least 50,000 words. 

But novels aren’t for everyone, so enter short form fiction.

Writing short form fiction is equally, if not more rewarding. It takes less time than writing a novel. 

What is Short Form Fiction?

According to the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors, “There is no universal standard for the different classifications” of short form fiction. I’ve found numerous, differing descriptions of word counts and what is or isn’t included in shorter forms of storytelling. As a writer, check out the guidelines for whatever contest or publication you want to submit to as you are writing your shorter pieces.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that a piece of short fiction is more than just words. The short fiction piece, no matter how few words are used, must tell a story. 

There is, however, some debate as to what is needed to make a string of words “a story.” I think we’re safe to say that, at the very least, a story includes:

  • A beginning, a middle, and an end. 
  • One or more motivated characters who experience conflict and a resolution of some kind. 

As far as the shorter forms of fiction (flash, short stories, novelettes and novellas), what seems to differentiate them first and foremost is word count. Second, is the complexity of the piece.

Why You Should Write Short Form Fiction

Short fiction can be completed while we’re finishing our longer WIPs. This is a major boost to our confidence levels, especially if you’ve got that completist mentality, like me, and thrive on getting projects done. 

Short stories, some flash fiction, a novelette or a novella are not only shorter, but are less complex when it comes to characters and plot so they can be written in less time.

You can submit shorter fiction for publication while you’re finishing your novel. The market for short stories, especially online, has grown exponentially in the last few years. There are thousands of publications looking for literary and genre-influenced stories from new and established writers. Many short fiction publications are searching for writers from traditionally marginalized communities such as BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ+. Some editors even provide valuable feedback when they don’t accept your story for publication.

Writing and publishing short fiction helps you build your reader base and may help you sell your novel. Get your name out there by writing and publishing some shorter fiction. That way, when you’re searching for an agent or going directly to a publishing house, you have something to add to your query letter about your potential marketability. It’s more likely that an agent or traditional publisher will want to back a writer that’s already sold some shorter pieces. It’s not impossible to be traditionally published as a complete newbie but any way you can get your name out there is beneficial to your writing career.

Writing short form fiction allows you to focus your stories more intently on singular or fewer characters and subplots. As a writer, I find that extremely refreshing. It’s like a vacation from the more complex, many-charactered and multi-sub-plotty novels I might be writing at the same time.

Finally, writing short stories, especially flash, is a great way to hone your writing skills. Smaller word counts call for even more diligent word choices. Every word counts even more when you have fewer numbers of words to play with. Writing shorter fiction forces you to choose, to make better decisions about how to invoke thoughts and emotions through your stories. This frugal use of language will bring more clarity to your longer fiction pieces.

The Different Forms of Short Fiction

From the least to the greatest number of words, here’s my down and dirty description of short form fiction. I’ll cover each of these in more depth in future articles.  

Flash Fiction

This is the shortest type of short fiction. Generally, any story of up to 1,000 (sometimes 1,500) words is considered “flash.” 

You’ll hear flash also referred to as sudden fiction, short-short stories, micro-fiction, or micro-stories. Flash is so short that it’s most often focused on a single experience or moment in time. You can easily read and write many flash fiction pieces in one sitting.

There are four types of flash fiction that come in under 1,000 words. Have you heard of any others?

  1. Six-word stories are (you guessed it) only six words long.
  2. Drabbles are up to 100 words. In some cases, exactly 100 words.
  3. Twitterature is generally 280 characters or less. This means spaces and punctuation marks are also counted.
  4. Sudden Fiction is 750 words, max.

By the way, Angela Yeh wrote a fabulous post about Flash Fiction for the DIY MFA blog. You can read her article here: Flash Fiction – No Flash In the Pan.

Short Stories

I have always remembered how a literature teacher told me that short stories were intended to be read “in one sitting.” I’ve read some longish short stories that took me a few days to get through, so I don’t think that applies across the board. 

Short stories are really about the word count and how the story is crafted. Short stories are generally 1,000 – 7,500 words, although I’ve seen some publications that accept short stories of up to 10,000 words. A 10,000-word story is really getting into novelette territory. 

Short stories tend to have a surprise ending, and there are many authors today experimenting with alternative forms, telling their stories through diary entries, email, even bibliographies for fake books. 

A quick search of the Internet will provide you with numerous websites where you can read short stories for free. For one of my absolute favorite “read in one sitting” stories, see “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, first published in The New Yorker, which rings in at 3,775 words.


I’ve heard novelettes referred to as long short stories or short novellas. 

As you can imagine from the name, these are “tiny novels” that are shorter and less complex than novellas. Novelettes are generally 7,500 – 19,000 words long and focus on a small cast of characters with few (if any) subplots. 

You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that some pieces considered short stories are novelettes. Check out The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (13,500 words and 54 pages).   


Novellas are the longest form of short fiction. Anything longer than a novelette (19,000 words) and shorter than a novel (50,000 words), is generally considered a novella. 

Just like with novelettes, novellas usually follow the main story of only one or two characters. Novellas by lesser-known authors are a safer bet for publishers and are often used as books in a series. 

For a chilling, gothic novella, see The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (42,000 words and 120 pages).

Now It’s Your Turn!

My deeper dives into each of these short forms of fiction are coming, so watch this space! I’ll include some examples in case you’d like to read or try your hand at writing in these different forms. I’ll also share some ideas about where to find inspiration and some pointers on where you can read and submit your shorter stories.

For now, I’d love to hear about your favorite short form fiction pieces. Is there some flash fiction that really made you think or feel something unexpected? A short story that stays with you? How about a novelette or novella that you’d recommend to others? 

I look forward to reading about your short fiction finds in the comments below!

A.H. Plotts writes and watches horror and dark sci-fi stories. She also likes playing in her garden, catching the waves, and eating delicious food on the California coast. Find her rantings all about it at www.ahplottsthecoast.com.

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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