Story Length: Why You Shouldn’t Worry

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Throughout a longish college career, I spoke to a couple dozen other writers, young and old, new and experienced. We talked about habits and methods, shared anecdotes on the Dreaded Writer’s Block and how to overcome it, and generally kibitzed with each other. We’d discuss the things we were working on at the time, and humbly brag about how amazing we all were.

One of the most jarringly divisive topics turned out to be the length of stories, especially novels. I was kind of shocked to see how strongly some of these writers felt about the subject.

Some of them were of the opinion that, if you can’t tell a story in less than sixty thousand words, you shouldn’t be in the business of telling stories. And they meant it. These people trashed Stephen King, known for some of his door-stopper books like The Stand and It. When I tried to explain that King had to be doing something right, considering that the guy is the most prolific and important writers in the last fifty years, they ignored me and kindly informed me that I could go screw myself.

Others were thoroughly convinced that books should have no less than a hundred thousand words, because that added a sense of value to it. They insisted that stories need a lot of time to develop, that the journey was far more important than the destination, and that they wouldn’t bother reading books that didn’t have at least three or four hundred pages anyway. Clearly, they were Ayn Rand fans.

My opinion got lost somewhere in the scuffle, mainly because most of these people were totally convinced that they were correct in their biases.

I mean, that’s okay, right? You’re allowed to write whatever you want. That is kind of one of the best parts about writing. If you want to write short snippets, cool. If you want to write long-ass epic tales, awesome. Do your thing.

But don’t you dare try to tell other people how long their stories are supposed to be.

Here is the fact of the matter:

Stories should take exactly as long as they need to in order to be most effective.

That’s the rule. That is literally the only rule.

If your story works best as a short scene that takes a thousand words, then that is as long as it should be. If it needs to take a hundred and twenty thousand, then that is the optimal length.

Do not allow yourself to get caught up in an arbitrary mental argument with yourself about story length and expectations. Your job, as I have said a hundred times on this site, is to write stories that are as good as you can possibly make them. Part of that includes the optimal length of it.

All your word count does is affect the designation of your work. Now, there are no hard and fast laws about what is considered what, but here are my general designations:

Less than 10,000 words: Short story

Between 10,000 and 20,000 words: Long story

Between 20,000 and 30,000 words: Novelette

Between 30,000 and 60,000 words: Novella

Between 60,000 and 250,000 words: Novel

250,000 words and up: George R.R. Martin’s notes for A Dance With Dragons, probably. (Seriously, we’re still waiting, George).

That’s it. I mean, what does it really mean to you if your story is a novella or a novel? Hardly anything, but it prevents you from sounding uneducated or ignorant when discussing it.

Other people designate it differently: they consider novels to be anything over 40,000 words. I say that’s horse crap. That’s a hundred and fifty pages– double-spaced. Single-spaced, you’re probably somewhere around a hundred or so. That’s… that’s nothing. I’ve had bowel movements that would last longer than it would take for me to read that book, and I should not be able to read a full-length novel in a single visit to the porcelain throne.

A young writer friend of mine had just finished his first book, and was sending query letters to agents to try to get it published. He couldn’t figure out why he was getting so many negative responses, and consulted a professional, who spotted one problem immediately. (So did I, as soon as he told me, for the record). He introduced his work thusly:

_______ is a novel that is complete at 40,000 words

Nope. It isn’t. It’s a novella.

In fairness, 40,000 words sounds like an awful lot to the layman. But to people in the business of writing, that’s not very much. To put that in perspective, I write an average of twenty-five hundred words per day (I do not edit as I go). It would take me just over two weeks to put together a rough draft that totaled 40,000 words, assuming I maintained the average (sometimes I don’t).

This is not intended to diminish the value of his work. I’ve read it! It’s actually pretty dang good. And I also probably couldn’t have come up with it and written it in a couple of weeks; I’m talking about strictly the writing portion of things. He wound up bumping the word count to about eighty thousand words, which was a smart move, because it was not only definitely novel-length, it was just a better story because of it.

I see a lot of people get hung up on hitting a specific word count, and I just don’t think that it’s a good idea. Alfred Bester, a brilliant Sci-Fi author who is one of the people credited with basically defining the whole genre, said “the book is the boss.” It’s a great quote that sums up a lot about writing in five words.

Your story eventually is going to take on a life of its own. Your characters are going to want to do things you can’t predict. Your scenes are going to take new directions that you didn’t originally intend. And your story will, typically, be better for it.

The point is that most stories know when they’re going to end. I don’t mean to apply too much personification to a largely mental construct, but there’s truth in it. Most of the time, if you write sequentially (and I always have and likely always will), you’ll have a feeling when it’s time to end the story. Don’t be upset if it’s longer or shorter than you originally thought. Let that feeling guide your writing, because it’s your instincts taking over.

I wrote about the dangers of plotting too much in a previous article, and this argument is sort of an extension to that one. Basically, do not let your preconceived ideas get in the way of your story. If you find that your story is running long, but can’t help writing more, that means that your story is pretty much writing itself at that point. I mean, The Fall of Fort Courage was originally going to be less than half that length, but it wound up being far better once the characters took over.

Don’t limit yourself. And don’t let anyone else limit you, either. For crap’s sake, there are writing contests out there that limit entries to 1,200 or 1,500 words, and that’s just with a casual Googling. I wouldn’t be surprised to find contests that restrict stories to less than 500 words.

I don’t know what value that sort of thing has. There are prizes, so that’s cool, but what the hell kind of story are you going to tell in under a thousand words? That’s about two or three pages. It’s part of a scene.

What kind of characterization are you going to be able accomplish in that short of a time? What kind of plot can you possibly have? How much can you waste on dialogue? On description?

Tolkein wouldn’t have been able to describe the freaking scenery in that little time. Michael Crichton would have had a heart attack. Stephen King has a knack for rapid characterization and short fiction, but even he would have a hard time fitting anything into that.

And would you actually want to read it? The web community Creepypasta thrives on short fiction, and a good portion of them fit into that narrow, bite-sized length, but the best ones (not just my opinion, but based on community ratings) are significantly longer.

Edgar Allen Poe, master of short fiction who literally wrote the book on short fictionhits the sweet spot between 2,500 and 3,000 words with most of his stories.

Look, maybe your story works perfectly at 1,000 words. But I start to cringe when I think about the type of finagling that needs to take place in order to get something that short.

Not everything needs to be a sweeping epic; that isn’t what I’m saying here. I’m saying that your story must be given the time necessary to develop properly, or you are doing a disservice to it. If it takes five pages, great. If it takes two hundred, also great.

Here is the rule when it comes to length:

Your story should be as long as it needs to be, no more, and no less.

Maybe your novel works better as a short story. Maybe vice versa, if you find that there are far more interesting things to explore than you originally thought. I don’t know; I’m not you.

Just… don’t limit yourself, either by insisting that something be under a certain length, or that it be over a certain length. Sometimes, you need to keep going.

Sometimes, like this article, you just need to end it.


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