It depends on what you call a story.
Short story long, I should not be the one to answer this question, simply because of the name of this blog.
I discovered a thing called the “Stats” button on WordPress today, and was surprised to find out that the Google search that would lead readers to my blog was the phrase “how long should a short story be”.
To those who were sincerely asking, I apologize for the misconception.
To those who are sincerely asking, this is my answer:
The man took his dog for a walk.
Quite arguably, this is a short story. It has a protagonist, it has a plot (or at the very least, action), and it is undoubtedly short.
But what did you think of when you read that “story”? What was the breed of the dog? What colour? How old? How old is the man? What does he look like? Is the dog his? What was the weather like? What time of day was it? Where were they going?
Obviously, several permutations of a very similar story are possible, but the story you want to tell–what you see and want others to see–are defined by only one set of “correct” answers. Personally, mine are as follows: Dalmatian, black and white (duh), four, eighty, glasses and greying hair with a large trench coat and an umbrella (unused), sunny, noon, home.
But all this does for me is ask more questions. What’s the Dalmatian’s name? Where are they coming from? Why is the man dressed for rain when it’s clearly a sunny day?
The more questions I find myself asking, the longer and more descriptive the story becomes. Sure, you ask enough questions and it’s no longer a story–it’s a novel. However, there is one key question that you must always ask yourself:
Am I satisfied?
The reason why all my short stories are long because I am never satisfied with “The man took his dog for a walk”. I need to know all the details—and quite often the questions I answer simply spur on more questions. It’s when I’m sure that there are no other questions that the story is sufficiently long enough.
So leaving questions unanswered is obviously a big no-no.
On the other end of the spectrum, continuously asking questions without discretion could lead to adding details that are not as important or necessary. To keep going with the dog walking, we don’t need to know where the man bought the umbrella, whether the dog took a poop on the corner, or if there’s a cigarette butt in the gutter–unless it’s necessary to the story. (Who cares if the dog took a dump?) Superfluous details like that make the story longer, and because they serve no purpose, simply take up space that could be better used answering questions that do matter.
This brings up a second point: even if you need to know all the details, your reader doesn’t.
This may sound cheesy and overused, but the key is balance. It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears…everything has to be just right.
For me, rule of thumb is that the story must contain no more and no less than the amount of words it needs to contain everything. And yes, it is vague, but if your story demands less words or more words, you should tailor it to what makes it better.
And how long does that take? Anywhere from 500-1500 words.
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” ― Edgar Allan Poe