Maybe it should be how long is it? That is, 'how long should a story be'? Of course, the glib answer is exactly as long it needs to be. No longer than necessary and no shorter than required to tell the story
Image: An umpire signalling a goal in the AFL. Sometimes they are disrespectfully asked "how big is it?" and obligingly appear to indicate. (Source: AFL website)
One of the most empowering aspects of modern fiction is that there are so many creative outlets that stories of almost any length can find a home and an audience. Stories can range from concise, mighty micros to epic, sprawling novels (or multiple novels within a series). Each form offers the writer a unique canvas for storytelling. That said, some guide to what is expected can be helpful. So, let's start at the beginning:
Micro stories or Flash Fiction. As the name suggests, these are the shortest of literary offerings. These stories are the absolute essence of creativity distilled into a tiny number of words. These stories typically have less than 100 words – sometimes significantly less. At first, it seems impossible to convey a story with such brevity. The word count restriction does not diminish the story's impact – it just means that the words used by the author must be chosen carefully. It is necessary to weed out every word that does not contribute an essential element to the story.
The most famous micro story is just six words long. The story is attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Legend has it that he was challenged, via a $10 bet, to write a micro-story that could make someone cry. Hemingway won the bet and added another anecdote to his larger-than-life legend.
Image: Hemingway's six word story (Source: Google images)
Short Stories offer more space to develop characters and settings while maintaining a compact narrative structure. These narratives typically range from 1,000 to 10,000 words and allow for a deeper examination of themes and characters. While longer than micro stories and flash fiction, short stories remain compact and focused, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Short stories often delve into a limited number of specific themes or ideas, offering readers a concentrated exposure to the author's message. Depending on the author's intent, short stories can conclude with a twist, an open ending, or a satisfying resolution. The length provides the writer greater choice.
Short stories are often presented as anthologies, either as a collection from one author (for example, Ben Walter's 'What Fear Was') or a literary collection from multiple authors that may also include other artistic types such as poetry and art (for example, Amanda Scotney's [ed] 'Minds Shine Bright').
Image: The cover of 'Storm' a Minds Shine Bright Anthology Season 1, 2023, showing the artwork 'Weather at the Museum' by Mike Barr, 2020 (Image: P. Mitchell).
Novellas are the most controversial and most often maligned literary class. A novella is a story shorter than a novel but longer than a short story. It is not quite a 'piece of string' definition, but it is close. I suspect that novellas are the poor cousin of the literary word because the length makesfinding a publisher more challenging to find. Too long for a blog or a magazine but too short for a book for a publisher to risk. Author, Stephen King — who has written many novellas — has argued that 'the in-betweenness of novellas has made the form difficult to categorize and therefore market' . The word count for a novella is vague, but a good rule of thumb is between 10,000 and 40,000 words.
Great examples of novellas are Truman Capote's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (26,500 words), George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' (26,000 words), Franz Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' (23,000 words) and John Steinbeck's 'Mice and Men' (30,000 words).
Image: A promotional photo from the film adaptation of 'Breakfast at Tiffany’s' ('Source: Paramount Pictures 1961).
Novels. The lines between a novella and a novel are blurred and maybe pushed into one or the other for marketing reasons more than any literary intention. As above, the examples by Capote and Orwell are more commonly considered novels.
Novels represent the most extensive, immersive and respected form of creative writing. Spanning many thousand words, novels give authors an almost unlimited canvas to craft complex worlds, intricate plots, and multifaceted characters. The novel is a literary form that has produced timeless classics and contemporary bestsellers, offering readers a deep and enduring literary experience.
Novels are characterised by a more substantial length, typically exceeding 50,000 words. This length allows multiple subplots, intricate narratives, and diverse perspectives, offering readers a rich, immersive storytelling experience. Novels enable the writer to explore a wide range of themes and cast of characters, often undergoing significant development and transformation, making them relatable and engaging for readers. Of course, the downside for writers is that a novel more commonly has a much longer gestation.
The world of novels is vast and diverse, accommodating genres including crime, romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and more. Even within the novel category, the genre can influence the word count. For example, a fantasy novel might exceed 100,000 words, while a traditional Western is close to a novella's length. Other genres might also have predetermined ideal lengths, as below.
Western 50-80,000 words
Memoir 60-75,000 words
Literary 80-120,000 words
Horror 80-100,000 words
Thriller 80-120,000 words
Science Fiction 90-125,000 words
Romance 70-90, ,000 words
Fantasy 90-180,000 words
Ref:  and 
The different lengths of creative works offer writers distinct opportunities to explore storytelling skills and convey their messages to readers. Micro stories excel in brevity and emotional impact, short stories provide a glimpse into diverse worlds, and novels embark on epic journeys through boundless imagination.
As a writer, the word count of a story shouldn't be the primary concern. The length should be subordinate to many other factors, including the literary intent, the number and breadth of the messages trying to be conveyed and other considerations. However, industry standards should be complied with if you want to get published. If you are a best-selling author, you can afford to be less mindful of the expected word count boundaries and nbend the rules. Until you are, it is worth considering the question – How big is it? and meeting expectations.
1. S. Gilbo. 'Average Novel Length by Genre and Age Range'. www.silvannagh gilbo.com
2. J. Bunting. 'Word count: How many words in a novel?' websearch Sept 2023.