When it comes to fiction, a short narrative can be found in many forms, from a slim book to just a few sentences. Short fiction forms can generally be broken down based on word count. The guidelines in this article can help you understand how short fiction is commonly defined. There are, however, no exact universal rules that everyone agrees upon, especially when it comes to flash fiction. When submitting your work for publication or contest entry, you should follow the specifications or submission guidelines. With that in mind, here's a list of short fiction forms and their definitions.
A work of fiction between 20,000 and 49,999 words is considered a novella. Once a book hits the 50,000 word mark, it is generally considered a novel. (However, a standard novel is around 80,000 words, so books between 50,000 to 79,999 words may be called short novels.) A novella is the longest of the short fiction forms, granting writers freedom for an expanded story, descriptions, and cast of characters, but still keeping the condensed intensity of a short story. Modern trends generally seem to be moving away from publishing novellas. Novellas are more commonly published as eBooks in specific genres, especially romance, sci-fi, and fantasy.
A novelette falls in the range of 7,500 to 19,999 words. The term once implied a book that had a romantic or sentimental theme, but today a novelette can be any genre. While some writers still use the term novelette, others might prefer to simply call it a short novella or long short story. Like the novella, a novelette may be difficult to pitch to an agent, but might work better as an eBook in niche genres.
Short stories fall in the range of about 1,000 to 7,499 words. Due to its brevity, the narrative in a short story is condensed, usually only focusing on a single incident and a few characters at most. A short story is self-contained and is not part of a series. When a number of stories are written as a series it's called a story sequence. Short stories are commonly published in magazines and anthologies, or as collections by an individual author.
Flash fiction is generally used as an umbrella term that refers to super short fiction of 1,000 words or less, but still provides a compelling story with a plot (beginning, middle, and end), character development, and usually a twist or surprise ending. The exact length of flash fiction isn't set, but is determined by the publisher.
There are many new terms that further define flash fiction. For example, terms like short shorts and sudden fiction are used to describe longer forms of flash fiction that are more than 500 words, while microfiction refers to the shortest forms of flash fiction, at 300 to 400 words or less. Here are some of the types of flash fiction:
The terms sudden fiction and short short stories refer to longer pieces of flash fiction, around 750 to 1,000 words. However, the definition varies and may include pieces up to 2,000 words, such as in the series that helped popularize the form, Sudden Fiction and New Sudden Fiction.
Postcard fiction is just what it sounds like—a story that could fit on a postcard. It's typically around 250 words, but could be as much as 500 or as few as 25. An image often accompanies the text to create the feeling of looking at a postcard, with the reader turning it over to read the inscription on the back.
Microfiction and nanofiction describe the shortest forms of flash fiction, including stories that are 300 words or less. Microfiction includes forms such as drabble, dribble, and six-word stories.
Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words (not including the title). Just because the form is short doesn't mean you can skimp on the basics of a good story. It should have a beginning, middle, and end, and include conflict and resolution. You can read examples of drabbles at 100WordStory.org.
When writing a drabble isn't challenging enough, you can try your hand at writing a dribble, which is a story told in exactly 50 words.
Ready to boil down a story and squeeze out its essence? Try writing a six-word story. It's not easy, but it's possible to write a complete story with conflict and resolution in six words, according to flash fiction enthusiasts. The most well-know example of a six-word story, often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, is, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." The story evokes deep emotion, causing the reader to ponder the circumstances that brought the character to post the advertisement. You can read more examples of six-word stories on Narrative Magazine's website (with a free account), which are more carefully selected, or you can browse user-submitted stories on Reddit. Some authors also write flash nonfiction, composing six-word memoirs.
Now that you are more familiar with some of the forms of short fiction, why not give it a try? Flash fiction can provide a helpful change of pace and help fine tune your writing skills. The limited word count forces you to consider the weight of every action, every character, and every word. Writing good short fiction takes time and practice. Sometimes it's the shortest pieces that can take the longest to write.
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