I've signed up for a short story contest where the word limit is 5000 words. In show-don't tell, one invariably uses more words showing than telling. I'm worried about the word limit: What if I use up the words before I finish?

How does one strike a balance between narrating a good story and keeping it short?

  • 1
    By following the 6P approach (Proper Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance). First, though, what does show don't tell mean to you?
    – user18397
    Oct 26, 2017 at 5:05
  • @Thomo I have a plan and the segues are all worked out. As to your question, I read somewhere that Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” What Chekov said.
    – H-Finch
    Oct 26, 2017 at 6:13
  • 2
    There's a lot of excellent short fiction out there. Start reading! (And the rule is "Show, don't tell, unless telling is better.") Oct 26, 2017 at 13:05
  • "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" proves showing can be very succinct.
    – J.G.
    Apr 13, 2018 at 13:13
  • This is just speculation, but I think it's in how much you can "imply". In writing, I see "action" and "description"; great "showing, not telling" manages to do both at the same time through implications. The reader draws conclusions about people and events based on a few key details laden with meaning. That's what "showing not telling" means to me. (I'm not a teacher or an experienced writer, so this is just a possible guideline.) Apr 13, 2018 at 21:33

4 Answers 4


Brace yourself for some serious realigning of your expectations. 5,000-word stories are their own form, and knowing what you've realistically got space for is crucial to using the form well.

A good 5,000-word story is one that's very, very tightly focused. It's not a matter of coming up with a story and then whittling it down to size -- it's a matter of coming up with a story that needs only two or three scenes; two or three characters.

O. Henry's "The Last Leaf" is 2,300 words; "The Gift of the Magi" is only 2,000. The reasons they're classics isn't because O. Henry is good at pruning words. It's because he wrote very very simple stories -- usually a simple situation and then a twist. And then, he spent his wordcount showing, not telling. Making that one situation, those handful of characters, that one single plot development -- making them real and evocative and wrenching.

It can be even less than that. In Shelley Jackson's classic "The Lottery" -- less than 3,500 words -- we get essentially a single scene, a simple town gathering. It's got less of a plot than a simple portrayal; understanding what's being portrayed is the story.

A short story can be the simple portrayal of a poignant moment, an interesting character, a delightful occurrence, an intriguing idea, an unusual storytelling voice. At these lengths, you're usually focused on doing one thing, doing it very very well. Know your limits, and you'll find that you can do amazing things within them.

So the answer to your question is: If show-don't-tell is what's pushing you over wordcount, you may want to choose a simpler story, so you have enough room to do showing.

(Do bear in mind that "show, don't tell" is a guideline, not a hard rule. There are plenty of exceptions. For example, a Joe Haldeman short story entitled "Four Short Novels" has always stuck in my mind: it Tells rather than Shows so much, that it's like Haldeman is summarizing four epic novels into a teensy tiny little story, and it totally works. You just need to know what you're doing, and why you're doing it.)

Another important pointer is: read short stories. You will get a much better sense of what the form is capable of, what kind of story "fits", if you're used to what other people have managed to do with it.

If you're fond of fantasy and science fiction, then Daily Science Fiction is a good place to browse (they do flash fiction -- only up to 1,500 words!), or check out Rocket Stack Rank to find a bunch of stories around the length you're interested in (they note wordcount for every story, and have great indexes, e.g. here and here).

  • 1
    +1 for The Lottery. I read a lot, and one of the first things I did when this became a problem was to re-read Edgar Allan Poe's works. His Cask of Amontillado is 2340 words, The Tell-tale heart is even less at 2148. My story already has only 2 main characters with a few supporting characters, but I guess I'll trim the back-stories a bit and see where I'm at.
    – H-Finch
    Oct 26, 2017 at 16:47

The contest probably doesn't require that you submit your first draft. You are allowed to edit and abridge the tale a few times before you put it up against the competition.

So write the story properly. Showing what can be shown. Telling when you must, but if you must, tell artistically.

Let the words flow out to their full length and then begin the hard work of killing your babies. Drop everything that isn't needed and then drop what is least needed and do it again until you get down below the word limit. If possible, cut a little more to get a hundred words under the limit. Then use those hard-won words to return artistry and smoothness to your telling.

Then, unless you are also under a time limit, sleep on this second draft and look at it again with fresh eyes tomorrow.

Repeat all these steps until you have a work that not only follows all the contest guidelines, but also wins your own self-approval, even before you submit it.

That way you win no matter what the contest judges say.

  • I do have a time limit, but I can afford to do some rewrites. tell artistically Isn't that showing ;-) ? Examples would help. I attempted a sci-fi story a while ago with more telling than showing for the science bits, and it was full of clunky exposition. This story I'm attempting now is more dramatic, and there is more scope for showing. killing my babies is what I'm not so good at. Everything seems to be just right.
    – H-Finch
    Oct 26, 2017 at 6:25
  • Show don't Tell is not an absolute law and in most cases, contest judges are looking for the quality of your story and the quality of the voice in which your story is told. All I mean by "artistically telling" is that you keep the goal of entertaining the reader (judge) in mind whichever method you choose. Paragraphs of clunky exposition are not entertaining. Figure out a way to avoid them, or at the very least, crush them down to a minimum of words. A telling sentence or two is fine if absolutely necessary. Oct 26, 2017 at 7:14
  • As for killing your babies, that isn't easy for any of us. But there are a lot of good techniques to get you started. One of my favorite involves reading a story backwards. Start at the conclusion, then go back a sentence. If that previous sentence contributes DIRECTLY towards the conclusion, highlight it in yellow. Walk through your story backwards all the way to the start, highlighting only the strongest contributing lines. Now repeat the process with an orange highlighter and look for lines which support the yellow highlighted lines. Repeat until you story looks like's Joseph's coat. Oct 26, 2017 at 7:20

+1 Henry's answer. For an alternative approach, rely on the elements of structure; the three act structure specifically, and pace your writing accordingly.

Use 30% for the first act. 1500 words.

You need to introduce the world and your main character (MC): 5% to 10%. Use 250 words at least, be done in 500 words. So that has to be a fairly simple setup.

You need to also have your inciting incident: Put it at the 15% mark, 750 words (i.e. there are 750 words BEFORE the first sentence of the inciting incident).

The inciting incident will typically introduce the villain (or show a character already introduced to be the villain), sometimes remotely (by name, or on TV, or a story being told by somebody). The first act concludes at the 30% mark (1500 words for you) with a transition to Act II, this is when your MC leaves their familiar world (physically or metaphorically) and begins their journey.

I recently used Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as an example:

The inciting incident is at 15% (Harry's 11th birthday, Hagrid appears, and Harry's life will be changed by going to Hogwart's, Hagrid also tells Harry of Voldemort).

At 30% is the moment Harry boards the magic train to take him to Hogwart's, literally passing through a magic portal in the train station 9 3/4 to enter a new world. Within the next 5%, he meets both Ron and Hermione. Ron is an instant friend and sidekick for the rest of the novel (a good foil); Hermione is written more as a love interest; she is confident and smart and irritates the two boys at every turn (although Rowling chooses in the end to pair her with Ron, not Harry).

At 50% you introduce the first main turning point or discovery; for Harry that is discovering the Cerberus by accident, he and Ron are out after curfew and trying to not get caught by Filch.

In the second half; you progress to the 90% mark (4500 words for you), to make the final discovery, and set up the final confrontation. For Harry, this is the confrontation with Quirrel at 93% to about 97%, followed by the wrap-up, victory is done, all is well, and back to the Normal World (until next year).

I suggest you take a novel you have read (preferably recently) and liked, and page through it for these key points, as percentage points in the novel, as I have done here. Use that as a model for your short story, whatever it is, identify these points and give yourself a word allowance for each. You can do as I did in less than an hour, find the structure.

Then write from the beginning with your word allowances. You don't start with 5000 words, you start with 250 words for your establishing scene (introduce your MC and the world): One page, for the layout I use in Word.

You won't have to kill your darlings, because you won't write any that won't fit. You know you can't spend a quarter of your allowance describing a teapot that has nothing to do with the plot. You have to pick the most important details that do the job, and focus on them.

When you have that 250 or 500, move on to the next, staying aware of the total so far. You need the inciting incident at 15%, 1500 words. If you spent 1000 words on the establishing shot, you only have 500 left! If you can't do it in two pages (250 words each) then fix the establishing shot.

Work through the novel you like; steal enough of that structure to give yourself 'milestones' of 5% to 10% in total length (so between 10 and 20 of them: The Sorcerer's Stone has 17 chapters).

Match your short story to that structure, and write each, staying within your limit. Remember 5000 is the max, so your limit is THE MAX, so finish each scene (chapter) with 10% to spare, so you have a little room to polish or backfill later (by backfill I mean add something to an earlier chapter to justify an event, skill, suspicion, or bias you discover you want in a later chapter, or to foreshadow an event in a later chapter). An easy way to do this is to calculate your percentages against 4500 words instead of 5000, giving you 500 words (about two pages) worth of backfill and revision.

Think of it as a clock on a long timed walk: If I am to be done in 4500 ticks, you need to be at point A by 5% (225 wd), point B by 15% (675 wd), point C by 30% (1350 wd). If you are too slow getting to point A, rewrite to make it faster or pick up the pace. Try to get to point B on time; do not let yourself get behind on three in a row. As you write, keep in mind the story must progress within one page (or two at the most) to the next station. Tangents that go too long become quite apparent, so you won't fill half a page with irrelevant poetry, and should never GET to the point of having a darling to kill.

Each Page will have a job to do and is your immediate puzzle to solve, and it will be far easier to get this one page right, than it would be to just start writing, end up with 30 pages, and then figure out how to cut 33% of it.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a full-length novel, at ~77,000 words. Trying to replicate epic HP-like structure, beats and pacing in under 5,000 words will be an exercise in frustration, and certainly not the way to use Showing within a tight word limit! :P
    – Standback
    Oct 26, 2017 at 14:07
  • 1
    Instead, consider comparing with, say, just the opening of Harry Potter -- everything building up to "Yer a wizard, Harry!" That'd be a lot closer to OP's wordcount goal here.
    – Standback
    Oct 26, 2017 at 14:08
  • @Standback I disagree. The opening of Harry Potter is not a story, it is an ACT, it does not conclude a central problem, it introduces one. The moment you talk about is 12,000 words into the story. The three act structure applies to a short story, a novel and a movie exactly the same. A short story doesn't have sub-plots or as many twists, but the idea is the same; the percentage rules still hold and still work. The world is obviously simplified, as is character development and the complexity of the problem, but the rules of what works in story telling still apply.
    – Amadeus
    Oct 26, 2017 at 14:17
  • Fair enough :) My intention was, the scope a 5K short story is capable of handling could probably manage "Harry Potter receives mysterious signs until he discovers he's a wizard". Maybe even that would be optimistic. Yes, it'd definitely need to be restructured (although mostly by taking existing material out).
    – Standback
    Oct 26, 2017 at 14:54
  • My point is that fitting story to word allowance seems a risky business, because some things take more than what you've alloted, or feel thin and hurried if they're squeezed too tight - and what do you do then? Short stories are interesting creatures, and have tools that novels don't -- including a certain freedom from the three-act structure.
    – Standback
    Oct 26, 2017 at 14:59

I took @Henry Taylor's advice and pruned some characters and dialog that added depth to the story but didn't move it forward. I also had a couple of unbiased third parties read it and made some changes before making a submission.

Final word count was a few dozen words shy of 5000.

And yeah, I won ;-)

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