Photos can be poignant, powerful, or precious glimpses of a moment in time.
Each one tells a story. And usually, the story is more than the caption you might see beneath the photo.
There are photos that strike us with awe at the power of nature, like this one:
Some photos strike us with a sense of irony, or even indignation and ire.
Sometimes a photo does nothing more than make you smile.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.
In the practice of creative writing, we can try to make our stories like a picture. A powerful and poignant picture that evokes a sense of wonder, makes someone smile or even brings tears to their eyes.
A snapshot that invokes a feeling, exposes emotions or opinions, or opens a reader’s eyes to something they have never seen that way before.
This is the power of a photograph …
And it is the power of a story.
Short Stories Are Kind of Like Movie Scenes
A short story is something like a scene rather than the whole movie playing.
Think about some of your favorite scenes in movies. Scenes that caught the essence of a movie somehow.
The character William Wallace shouting “Freedom” in the movie Braveheart.
Even if you were not to watch the whole movie, you would know by that one scene that he was a man willing to die for what he believed …
And you would probably have a feeling of satisfaction, as well as a wish that you somehow knew more about the story, more about that person.
Or Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, standing on the desk and telling his students about seeing life from a different perspective.
He urges the class, “We must constantly look at things in a different way.”
That scene catches the essence of the movie. You see a teacher fully engaged with his students, urging them to step out of the confines of what they see and know and embrace life.
You see the faces of students responding, with wonder, disbelief, desire. You know, intrinsically, that he will change their lives.
That is the power of a scene.
The power of a story.
Or it can be, if we know how to write it right.
What Is a Short Story?
Certain elements that go into writing a short story are different than the elements for writing a novel.
But first of all, a definition.
A short story is a brief literary work that generally focuses on a single incident.
One dictionary defines it this way:
an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plotMerriam-Webster Dictionary
Historically, the length of a short story is no shorter than 1,000 words and no longer than 20,000 words.
Often, a short story will not run longer than about 7,500 words and is usually shorter.
A novella is a label often given to works that resemble short stories but are generally longer. Like short stories, novellas often focus on a single situation or event rather than a series of them.
Of course, these descriptions are fairly general.
You can’t always determine whether something is a short story or a novella solely by word count. It also depends on the author and publisher – what they labeled it and where they have placed it as far as genre and literary category.
Then there are novelettes, a term some literary circles use interchangeably with novellas, but that others consider two separate categories.
A novel tends to be 40,000 words or more, though is often 65,000 words to 100,000.
If you’ve written a story longer than that, you might need to consider writing a series.
A Definition of Different Works of Fiction (by Length)
You’ll find variations on this, of course, but here is a general guideline of the various forms of fiction works, defined by length.
Nano Fiction (less than 100 words, though often shorter):
If you’ve read Twitter fiction, you’ve read nano fiction. It’s short.
Micro-Fiction (100 – 300 words):
This form of (very) short story is becoming increasingly popular, although some works of micro and nano fiction feel more like anecdotes or the beginning of a story. It’s very hard to write a solid, standalone story in 300 words or less.
Flash Fiction (300 – 1,000 words):
This type of short story is a great practice for writers, as it’s fairly easy to write, but also forces you to focus on the most important elements of a good story as you don’t have lots of words to spare.
Short Story (1,000 – 7,500 words):
This can be considered the regular form of short story. It is often the type of story you will find in periodicals and literary magazines, so if you are hoping to get your fiction published in periodicals, the short story is likely what you’re going for.
Novellette (7,500 – 20,000 words):
A novellette is not an easy length of story to get published, as it is too long for a magazine/periodical, but too short to be printed as a standalone novel. It could work well as an ebook though.
Novella (20,000 – 50,000 words):
And speaking of ebooks, novellas are the ideal length for e-publishing. Online readers sometimes prefer shorter books, as it takes too long to scroll through a 100,000-word novel.
Novel (50,000 -100,000 words):
While the range of 60,000 to 80,000 is generally more acceptable, some publishers will accept fiction works that are as short as 50,000 words, or as long as 100,000 or so. If your work is much longer and you’re not an established author, you might consider trimming it down.
Series and Epics (Over 100,000 words):
If your story just keeps growing, perhaps it is not meant to be a standalone novel, but would work better as a series of two or three or even more books. At the same time, if you’re a new writer and it’s your first novel, it could also be that your book needs some developmental editing in order to include only the relevant details.
Why Write Short Stories?
As mentioned above, flash fiction is a form of short story that is 1,000 words or less.
Here are four reasons to give short stories a try:
1. It’s a Great Test for a Fiction Writer
In my opinion, if you can write flash fiction effectively, you can write any other form of fiction.
In writing flash fiction, you are telling a story in a thousand words or less, which forces you to focus on the most important elements of the story.
You cannot spend a thousand words describing how a person looks, or what their personal history is.
You have to draw in the reader from the beginning and keep them engaged, while still using all the important pieces of a story:
2. People Are More Likely to Read a Short Story
Another reason flash fiction works so well these days is that we are living in a “byte” society. We like things in byte sizes.
A news flash can’t be longer than eight seconds or we lose interest.
Our favorite commercials used to be around 30 seconds; now, 15 seconds is better.
We consider ourselves well-read on a subject if we’ve read one or two 500-word blog posts or articles on the topic.
Okay, that last one might be an exaggeration …
And if you are a writer, you are likely someone who enjoys a good book, even if it is 100,000+ words.
Let’s face it …
Some books are highly readable even if they are 257,045 words, not that I’m talking about any book in particular. 😉
3. You Have Higher Chances of Publishing a Short Story
Another reason for writing short stories, including flash fiction, is that it’s a great place to launch a writing career.
You can write (and publish) several short stories in literary journals and periodicals in the time it would take you to write a single novel.
4. It’s a Good “Test” to See if Writing is Right for You
Writing a short story or a piece of flash fiction can also help you figure out if writing is what you really want to do.
It is a great way to practice if you’ve already started writing and want to get better at it.
Millions of people want to write a book.
When I tell people I am a freelance writer and editor, I often get the response, “I have a great idea for a book” or “I’ve always wanted to write a story about –”
It’s not hard to imagine why …
We are creative. We have ideas.
We see people in our lives interact or experience amazing or tragic or memorable things and we say, “This could make a great story.”
Writing a short story is a perfect way to ease into the fiction-writing world because it is a quicker process than writing a novel.
Reaching a word count of 1,000 or 5,000 words will take far less time than reaching a word count of 50,000 or 75,000.
The rewriting and editing process also goes a lot quicker.
Within a couple of weeks (or less than a week if you’re driven and inspired), you can have a short story ready to show your friends and family or seek publication.
If you’re a beginning writer and you want to learn the ins and outs of writing, as well as break into the publishing world, short stories are a good place to start.
But they are also a terrific practice even for established writers. Plenty of famous writers wrote short stories in addition to their full-length novels, including …
- James Baldwin
- Virginia Woolf
- Toni Morrison
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Stephen King
So, if you don’t have time to write one hundred thousand words, try writing a thousand.
And see where it takes you.
It might be the start of something wonderful!