Many short story competitions, at least in Israel, set a theme and a word count: up to 2500 words, 2000-5000 words, etc. I often find myself starting short stories for such competitions, and hitting the word count upper limit halfway into the story I want to tell. The only times I managed to stay within the word count is when writing fanfic: I didn't need to do much of an introduction for the setting and the characters, and could thus dive directly into the story. Of course, not all competitions accept fanfic, and most of the time it wouldn't fit the theme of the competition in the first place.

Writing that is more concise can shave off about 10%-20% of what I've written without sacrificing story. But surely not 50% or more. So it would appear my stories are from the outset too big for the format.

Is there a way to plan a story for a shorter word count? A way to know from the beginning that a story is likely to fit or not to fit into the limit I've been set?

  • What did you write and which parts of it mattered? Why can you not chop this or that passage? Commented May 6, 2018 at 16:44
  • @RobbieGoodwin I write Fantasy and Sci-fi. This or that passage can be chopped, but one can hardy chop away half the story. If that much needs to be chopped to fit the word count, then the story, from its inception, could not have been told in that number of words. Which is where my question comes in. Commented May 6, 2018 at 22:20
  • If "the story… could not be told in so many words" then it could not enter that competition; no amount of planning by any writer could change that; the Question would always be pointless… so there must be another way. Your fanfic could dive directly into the story because the introduction; the setting and the characters are not the story, nor even part of it. Boy Meets Girl doesn’t depend on knowing how Boy and Girl look and behave; that’s a story complete in itself. Boy Meets Girl and Then… is dependent, because it’s a different story… then, which one are you writing? Commented May 8, 2018 at 0:29

7 Answers 7


I've been mulling this too.

Short stories serve a different purpose, like a poem is different than a novel.

One idea is that a short story is: A Character, In A Situation, With A Problem ...

This idea is to structure the story differently than a novel. The story could be simply the resolution of a relationship between a dying man and his estranged wife. No big arc, just a character, in a situation, with a problem. And the story (the death and resolution of relationship) serves the reader differently than a novel.

That's my answer. Look at your structure from a gross and holistic viewpoint, if you know what I mean. If you are writing a novel ... maybe tell yourself that you are writing a poem, or something, to break the habit you are falling into.

Here's a link I am using for inspiration on shorts.

  • 1
    +1. that's a good link peoples, go read it!
    – Amadeus
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 10:40
  • That link is gold! :O Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 8:56

You need to be very sparse when writing short stories. Whereas a novel needs to answer every* reasonable* question or a reader gets frustrated, a short story needs to leave a lot more up to the reader's imagination. Not only that, you need to pick a small enough objective that you can achieve it in the word count. This is true of every story you'll ever write no matter the length.

On to the best answer I have found to your question, though it is in many ways a starting point and you may still have to take the butcher's cleaver to your sentences when you're done.

I always find this helpful as a good estimate before I write a story or as a diagnosis tool afterwards. Plus, math speaks to me.


Ls=((C+L) *750)*1.5Mq


Story Length [words] = ((Characters + Locations) * 750) * 1.5 * MiceQuotients

The mice quotient is basically "big ideas" that you can plan a story around, that also tend to guide how long a story will be since (as you've noted) there's always explaining to do around them. Most of these are self describing, but below I've used Lord of the Rings (lotr) to provide examples.

Mice Quotient

MILIEU: A milieu story concerns the world surrounding the characters you create.

To further expound, it's generally having to do with the entering/exiting of a place. IE, LOTR: Leave the shire, come back to the shire. Enter Moria/Leave Moria.

IDEA: An idea story concerns the information you intend the reader to uncover or learn as they read your story.

Some LOTR ideas: Power Corrupts, Industrialism vs Agrarian Society, War is Hell, What is a Hero

CHARACTER: A character story concerns the nature of at least one of the characters in your story. Specifically, what this character does and why they do it.

Some LOTR characters: The fellowship (9) + bilbo + the important elves + the important dwarves + the important humans + the named evil wizards + all those side characters + + + omg its too many, but it is finite.

EVENT: An event story concerns what happens and why it happens.

LOTR examples: The party, the hobbits have to leave the shire, sauroman turns evil & Gandalf must survive this, We tried, but can't cross the mountain pass, how do we survive a Balrog, why hobots shouldn't drop buckets down wells.

Once you have written a work, you need to isolate what that work is about and trim down. It's ok if you overshoot on a first draft by 10%-40% of the length. It's better if you do. But, you'll need to figure out what your good bits do and work on compression & removal to get down to the element of what you want. This usually involves scanning sentences for redundant or useless turns of phrase; quirks of voice which expand the length and are unneeded; or elements which do not serve to achieve your desired effect. This section is only included here to say, if you end up above your estimated length, it's an indicator that you can still cut and that your plan should involve some amount of this until you've written long enough (10+ years professionally) that you start to incorporate the lessons you've learned from revision into your at-keyboard-drafting-process.


I would write to shorter limits. Following roughly the three act format.

Use 30% for the first act.

  • introduce the world and your MC; 5% to 10%.

  • Write your inciting incident; begin at the 15% mark. This will typically introduce your villain; sometimes remotely (by name, or on TV, or a story being told by somebody).

  • The first act concludes at the 30% mark with a transition to Act II, this 30% is when your MC leaves their familiar world (physically or metaphorically) and begins their journey.

  • Within 10%, MC meets any friends / sidekicks on their journey.

  • At 50% introduce your first main turning point or discovery.

  • 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.

  • At 93% to about 97% is your final confrontation, followed by the wrap-up, victory is done, all is well, and back to the Normal World.

Obviously you don't have to follow this budget religiously; but if your setup is running over 10%, rethink it. It will be better than rethinking the whole story. You have a budget, try to stick to it. If you can do your setup quicker, you have extra words to play with for the other parts.

When conceiving of very short stories you should minimize the number of characters and simplify the problem; often you want just a protagonist and a villain.


A story is how long it is. The short story is a spare medium to begin with. You can't make a decently written story of X words X-500 words without taking something away from the story itself.

I think a perennial short story writer develops a sense of what constitutes a 2500 word story. It is a 2500 word story from the beginning, before word one has been committed to paper/silicone.

If you want to enter a short story contest with a 2500 word limit, write a 2500 word story. If you end up writing a 5000 word story, find a contest that accepts 5000 word stories. If you desperately want to enter the 2500 word story contest, think of a 2500 word story and write it. Don't try to cut a 5000 word story down to 2500. Don't chop the arms of the Venus de Milo or the nose of the Sphinx. It just won't be the same.


I've found that short stories are almost, but not completely, totally different from novels. They share a lot of theory and they include words and normally the three-act structure.

However, in a novel you can go into a lot more detail than in a short story. Short stories introduce characters very quickly. Often this is done with characters that resonate very strongly with readers so that they don't have to be described with a large back story. In science fiction, some of these archetypes are the space cop, the scientist, the rogue, and the engineer. These (and others) can be described very quickly.

Characters are rarely given much of a description.

Likewise the setting is described with as few words as possible (but no fewer). If I was to describe a meadow filled with wildflowers, I wouldn't give them names.

I'm bad at short stories, though I'm writing some (to be read only by myself), as practice. But one way to master the art is to write stories with a limit of 1,000 words, or even 500 words. Entire stories can be written in much fewer words than this, but it gets more difficult the fewer words you have.

TL;DR The short story is not an extremely short novel. It is a type of literature that is totally different from a novel.


I didn't need to do much of an introduction for the setting and the characters, and could thus dive directly into the story.

As this is a very specific issue, there is a very specific answer: Learn how to set the scene as the story goes along, or imply rather than be explicit.


I have found that ideas, once you write them, have certain lengths.

When I want to write a certain kind of story, I almost always ends up a bit shorter than the sweet spot for length of that genre in the first draft, and the second draft then has the right length. This is not a conscious self-limitation or artificial bloating of a shorter text, but a necessary result of the narrative itself: the lengths that agents and publishers expect for certain genres are not randomly imposed, but derived from how long stories of that genre typically are.

Usually I don't set myself to write a novel or short story, but rather go with the idea I have and allow it to turn into whatever it was meant to be, but if you want to specifically write a short story (with a certain maximum word count), you could turn this "idea-inherent length" around and limit yourself to ideas of a certain length:

  • Read stories of the length you aim for (or think of stories of that length that you have read).

  • Consider their topics or themes, their plot structure, and what else you find is similar among them.

  • Merely from your reading and reflection, ideas for your own story should already be coming up, if you are a creative person with an active imagination.

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