How to Decide on the Length of Your Story
Figuring out what you are writing isn’t always as easy as you think. Many writers, when they begin, may think they are writing a short story when they are actually writing a novel; or vice versa. When I first started, in fact this is what occurred.
Some time ago, when I was a budding novelist working on my second unpublished novel, I decided to write short stories. I’d been told time and again that it was easier to publish short stories (the market is far more diverse) and they provided excellent qualifications for when it came time to market my novel. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I kept getting rejections with comments that my short story ought to be a novel! It took some time to master the art of short story telling. But when I did, I realized that I’d learned a lot about storytelling that I could apply to my novel. And by the time I was ready to publish my novel, I had several short story publications behind me to prove the salability of my work.
So, what are you really writing? Or, more to the point, what should you be writing?
A short story only has 7,500 words or less to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.
Short Vs. Long—What’s Your Focus?
Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. Short stories must be more succinct, contain fewer characters and subplots, have less complicated story arcs and a single theme. You could say that a short story is a poem to a novel’s prose. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books. She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.
Renowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response.
Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.
Pick Your Length Checklist
The following short checklist will help you determine whether you should be writing a short story or something longer like a novel:
- does your story have several main characters and minor characters?
- is your story full of subplots?
- does your story contain multilayered themes and story arcs?
- do your characters learn and change notably?
- is there significant change in your story?
- does your story contain several settings and sub-stories?
- does your story explore several ideas as opposed to one main idea?
- does your story investigate several issues rather than making a single point?
If you answered “yes” to most of the above, then you should be writing a novel.
Defining Story Length
The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America defined story length forms in the table below. Definitions vary among other sources but remain close to these.
|Table 1: Terminology of Story Lengths|
|Drabble (Flash Fiction)||Exactly 100 words|
|Flash Fiction||Less than 500 words|
|Short short Fiction||500-1,000 words|
|Short Story||Less than 7,500 words|
|Novelette||7,500 to 17,500 words|
|Novella||17,500 to 40,000 words|
|Novel||More than 40,000 words|
Creative Options & Market Tips
During my early “salad” writing years as a short story writer, I discovered a system that helped me send out material and publish with more ease and efficiency. It helped that I was rather prolific with short story telling and that I was simultaneously working on a few novels. Here are some creative things you can do with both your short stories and novels (in the works or already published) to increase your productivity and publishing opportunities:
- Use Novel Excerpts: Here’s something I did to save time, hone my craft, and receive early recognition: I took “aha” excerpts from my ongoing novel and adapted them into stand alone short stories—altering at least 20% of the content and other elements like setting, names, etc. In each case, I ensured a powerful story by focusing on the single thematic element. I sold at least five short stories to good magazines this way. The short stories went on to receive recognition, awards and a place in some “Best of” anthologies, long before my novels received similar recognition. In each case, the short story became an equally—if not more—powerful version of its sister work in my novel, much like a poem is to a piece of prose. Try it; you might really like it.
- Adapt A Short Story into a Novel or Novella: you may find that a powerful thought expressed in your short story engenders interest in a larger plot with more depth, such as a novel. Nancy Kress and Ray Bradbury are two short story/Novella writers who adapted some of their works into longer forms to create something both new and compelling.
- Run Your Novel and Short Story Submissions Like a Bus Depot: When I was writing a lot of short stories, I kept a list of what and where I submitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment. I ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me.
- Reprint Your Published Short Stories: You can only do this if you ensure that you initially only sell First Rights with your story’s first publication. My short story “Virtually Yours” has been reprinted five times and is continuing its journey still. It has appeared in “Best of” anthologies, several collections (e.g., Natural Selection); it has been translated into several languages and published all over the planet. Don’t let your story languish on its first success. See where else it can go. Foreign markets are a largely untapped area.
- Do Foreign Translations and Reprints: Thankfully, Douglas Smith, a colleague of mine and celebrated short story writer has compiled a list for short story foreign markets. He also recently put out a book on marketing your short story, called “Playing the Short Game”.
Smith, Douglas. 2014. “Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction”. Lucky Bat Books. 230pp
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate. 266pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “Virtually Yours” in Natural Selection: a Collection of Short Stories. Pixl Press. 120pp.
This article is an excerpt from Chapter R of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.