How Long Is Your Story?

Once The Idea Fairy has deposited a packet beneath your pillow, or you’ve unwrapped the latest mail-order from Schenectady, you must decide, among other things, whether you’ve got a short-short or a multi-volume epic on your hands. Story ideas have been likened to different kinds of wood or sculpting materials. Some ideas are lightweight, like balsa or pine (or aluminum); others are more dense (oak, plaster, copper). Some are brittle, others more fluid and malleable. Some are uniform in texture, others richly varied.

As a general rule, if anything like a rule can be applied to storytelling, the stronger the basic material, the greater length and complexity it can support. What that means is that–again, in general–a gossamer, undifferentiated concept might package up nicely in a few thousand words, but if you try to stretch it out to a novella, it will turn thin and tinny. (Composers work around this by using Theme and Variations, which is certainly possible in writing as well, but still requires a theme that has enough substance to make it worthwhile.)

It took me a number of years after I’d started selling professionally to be able to look at a new idea and get a sense of its best length. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t had enough experience to “size it up.” Also, I had only a few story-lengths in my repertoire, basically short story (3-5,000 words) and novel (80,000). It was like driving a car with only two gears or, to quote the adage, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As a consequence, some of my short stories read like condensed novellas, and I was accumulating a pile of unfinished novels–unfinished because once I’d hit 5,000 words, I’d said everything there was to say.

To my credit, I began noticing these problems. I also experimented with different ways of sketching or outlining a story. My favorite method was a flow chart, preferably done in different colored inks. Seeing the scenes laid out like that helped me to think in terms of how much of the overall length I was devoting to each part (set-up, complications, climax…) and also the total length. Without actually having written the whole story, I began to be able to guess its final wordage. I made a lot of bad guesses, but an increasing number of good ones. Eventually, I was able to say, “This is mahogany and should come in at about 10,000 words,” and be right.

As I paid closer attention to the qualities of the story idea, I also started writing at different lengths, as indicated above. As I became more skillful, I learned how to play out crucial scenes and flesh out what is true and deep and delightful: hence, longer and more satisfying stories. I’ve never written a lot of short-shorts, and flash fiction remains terra incognita, but I discovered the joys of the novelette, a really wonderful length for ideas too meaty for that 5,000 spot and pretty well wrapped up well below novella length. It remains one of my favorite story lengths.

On a few instances, I was able to take a failed story and rework it successfully at a different length. “Transfusion,” a tale of friendship between a vampire and an observant Jew (first published in Realms of Fantasy, 1995) began life as one of those fizzled-out novels. As fate would have it, my floppy drive went gonzo and wouldn’t read the diskette on which it had been stored. When I rewrote it, I discovered how much better it worked as a novelette.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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How Long Is Your Story? — 11 Comments

  1. My theory is that most writers have their natural length — the way many horses have their natural race. Derby winners are bred to run the Kentucky Derby, and steeplechase horses are bred to run and jump for several miles at one effort. You cannot swap horses out; putting a racing thoroughbred into a steeplechase simply leads to grief.
    And so it is with writers. Some are so natural at one length that you rarely see them at any other — Kate Elliott is the quintessential example of the natural Fat Fantasy Trilogy gal. If she writes short-shorts I have never seen one; she has said that when she hits 200,000 words the work is finally hitting its stride.
    My natural length is about 100,000 words — a standard novel length, thank heaven. And luckily I have two ‘gaits’, so I am comfortable writing at about 7-10K as well. One of the many tasks of the new writer is to discover her natural length. Only then can she work to expand (or shrink) it, if she wants to.

  2. I rarely think short. All of my short stories have sold to themed anthologies. They give me an idea. I run with it. Very few of my own ideas succeed short.

    Deborah has commented on several over the years that my short fiction reads like a novel excerpt and she wants to see the whole thing <-:

    As I mature as a writer I find even my novel length is changing. The early dragon books all came in at around 100-125 K. The Merlin books averaged 200 K. Other series wandered between 150-175. Now I'm into Pixies and struggling to find 100 K.

    It all depends on the story. But I rarely try to write short unless asked to perform my juggling trick on a specific topic.

  3. Brenda–wonderful image, especially for this horse-lover’s heart! I think of 100-m dashes vs marathons in terms of how I work writing into my day, but the metaphor is equally applicable to story length.

    Phyl–you’re in great company as a natural novelist! I agree that a skill that comes with maturity is learning to pace oneself down as well as up in length. Marion used to talk about writing for Ace Double editions. I think those novels ran 50-60K, so they had to be plotted within an inch of their lives. Then novels got longer and there was room to elaborate, play with sub-plots. Now market demands seem to be pushing the other way: crisp, succinct.

  4. I agree that writers have their natural metier, although mine has grown longer and longer. . . .

    OTOH, I don’t think it’s so much the strength of the original idea as how many ideas there really are there. Stuck together. (A topic I go on about at length here.)

  5. Well, I think it was your story for SHADOW CONSPIRACY I was reading, Phyl — it was plain that it had extra stuff that would help to tie a 150,000 word epic together. But for a short piece those bits were going nowhere and connecting to nothing, and were candidates for the high jump. You are obviously a natural novel-length writer.
    I am quite good at pruning and squeezing, from doing hard time with student mss.

  6. What a wonderful analogy using the ‘materials’.
    I’m definitely and Ironwood tree writer. Ironwood is a type of tree found in Australia, and like the name suggests, almost indestructible.

    I like the complexity and length of George R R Martin’s work, but please dear Goddess, not so long between volumes.

    Mind you trying to split an Ironwood log is an exercise in controlled impossibility, so maybe I could go with a slightly softer wood.

  7. Interesting you should say that … when I was a young thing I worked a season splitting logs to make fence-posts, the old fashioned way, with a sledge-hammer and steel wedges. (my ears still ring just at the thought of the sound those two pieces of metal coming together with all the force a body could muster) It was hard, hard work. Raised on a farm I was no slouch, none of the women on that crew were, but even the burliest of the blokes needed help on occasions.

    We came across a log that had a 180 degree twist along its length, and, I dunno, insanity took over and we decided to split it without cutting it into shorter lengths, which we all agreed would be cheating. Being of a logical mind I made ’em plan it out first. Which wedge would go where and in what order. Finally we were ready. The first wedge slid in like butter, and the second, and the third. The log slowly parted as though it had chosen to.

    We split it into four lengths, (It was a big log) and drew lots as to who would get them. I lost unfortunately, but one of the winners was a woodcarver who made his bit the centerpiece of his home that he built with his own hands, with a lot of help from the hands of the rest of us! It still stands to this day, a metaphorical and physical testament to working WITH the wood.

  8. And that illustrates clearly a metaphor mostly lost to us now. When we say ‘working with the grain’ we really don’t know what we’re talking about!
    And that ties into something I posted in reply to LAG’s post — that sometimes the fence is too high. Yes, you can work in a story that is totally not you. You can fight the grain of the wood all the way. But: is this an efficient use of your energy? Do you really want to spend five years learning all the minutiae of, say, baseball statistics or coral reef maintenance or Worlds of Warcraft, knowing that there are hundreds of people who have been doing this all their lives who you will never catch up with?
    Surely it is better for us to Write What You Know, to some extent.

  9. We must write on the topics of human concern.
    As today the Japanese facing a great nature’s fury or disaster due to the sspreading of contaminated air and poluted water due to the earth quack and tsunami disasters.

    All the countries must try to help the people of Japan by providing them ENOUGH SPACE IN THEIR OWN COUNTRIES i.e. big countries like China may provide this space for a million japanies and small countries provide space for less than one million countries to live till the End of the poluted atmosphere

    Whole world must behave like a smallo VILLAGE as it has become now due to the spread of the Techonology, and come forward to help the needy Japanise at this time of great Trouble.

    Thanks

  10. As a natural trilogist I struggle even with novel-length ideas. The other other thing I can do is short-short – but writing ‘normal’ short stories are something that has eluded me for a very long time, and I’m still working very hard at the concept.