Storyville: How Long Should Your Story Be?
One question I get from most of my student is, “How long should my story be?” Or, “How do you know when to stop, when your story is done?” And those are great questions. Let’s take a look at some different variables that can help you to figure out how long your story should be, and if there is enough meat on the bone to go longer.
1: Trick or Gimmick
If your story is relying on a framework that is a bit of a trick or gimmick, it may be really hard to maintain that. My list story, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave”, is only about 400 words. That’s as long as I could stretch the list and keep it moving. My epistolary story, “In His House”, ended up being about 2,000 words, as that’s as long as I could sustain the narrative of an email conversation from some Lovecraftian slave trying to enlist you into his cosmic horror army. And my story, “Undone”, which is one sentence, inspired by the 800-word Stephen Graham Jones story “Faberge” that I reprinted at Gamut, had to get over the 1,500 word mark so I could submit it to the Pantheon anthology, Gorgon: Stories of Transformation.
This is pretty simple, but for the most part, the more characters you have, the more room you need to get it right. Can you write a 500-word story with 12 monsters? Sure. But really, how deep can you get? My shorter work, such as flash, and micro-fiction, tends to be 1-3 characters, focused on a singular emotion and idea. Why? It’s hard to go deeper and get your audience to care in fewer words. As you slowly start to expand to 2k or 3k, then you can add in more. Obviously, with a novel, you can take on a WHOLE lot more.
3: Depth OF Emotion
Similarly, how many emotions are you working with? If you are focused on one reaction or motivation, one strong emotion—say grief, hope, or panic—then you need less space. But if you want to take on loss and the idea of permanence and then add in love, that may need more than 1,000 words to get right. So, the more complicated the emotions, the more depth that you want us to feel, the more room you will need.
4: Your Plot
If your plot is a simple one, the weird Lovecraftian dude trying to get you to do one thing, and one thing only—keep reading the story, so you can utter those dark, magical, haunting words—then yes, it can be shorter. If you have several different plots and sub-plots going on, threads running across a large cast, across place and time—you need more room to do it right. It will just take up more room on the page. That’s why some people only read novels, they want to sit with it, chase the mystery, and work out the conflicts over hours, days, weeks. If you have twists and turns, and need room to make that happen, it’ll be longer.
5: Enough Meat on the Bone
Something I mentioned earlier is that there needs to be enough meat on the bone to develop a story. How much is enough? As you can see by the first four entries, it depends on many factors. If you have a simple idea, with one character, and the emotions are rather contained, and there is enough story (it’s not just a trick or gimmick), then you can go longer. The more originality, the more depth of setting and atmosphere you need (or want), the layers of emotion, and size of cast, will all help to dictate whether you turn this into flash, a short story, a novelette, a novella, or a novel.
6: Sturdy Story Length Parameters
You need to know word count minimums and maximums. Memorize them. Anything under 1,000 words is flash. There are also several other shorter lengths—micro-fiction, dribbles, drabbles, etc. Those numbers are firm. Short stories run 1,001 to 7,500. But there is a sweet spot right around 5,000 where a lot of places cut off. So keep that in mind. 7,501-15,000 is a novelette. 15,001 to 40,000 is a novella. And 40,000+ is a novel. Each genre also has maximums and minimums, with some fantasy STARTING at about 80,000 words. Do your research across the different lengths, and the publications and presses you want to work with, and see what shakes out. Maybe you need to cut to stay under 5,000. Maybe you need to push to get up to 3,000. Do what you need to do. That’s why I talk a lot about writing to a length, and encourage my student to hit my word count marks. You need to be able to control your narrative, to a certain degree.
7: Is It Done?
How do you know if it’s done? Basically, it’s everything I’ve talked about already. I use Freytag as my guide, so keep that in mind, too. Did you hook us, give us enough exposition, did the tension rise, did you establish the internal and external conflicts, building to a climax, with a resolution (and change), as well as denouement? Good. Based on the complexity of your story, you’ll see how long it needs to be. If you DIDN’T do those things, if the story isn’t satisfying, if you don’t care, can’t see it, and don’t understand what happened—then you probably need to expand and keep going. It’s not done.
8: That 5,000-Word Sweet Spot
When I think about writing a short story, I always have this mark in mind—5,000 words. It took me a long time to build up my writing chops in order to tell a longer story. For many years, probably the first 3-5 of my career, most of my work was in the 3-4k range, or shorter. I just couldn’t maintain the plot, the setting, the emotion. Think of it like a runner or a pitcher being stretched out. There are sprinters, those that run relay, those that run the mile, and marathoners. All runners, all different lengths. A pitcher may only be able to throw 98 MPH for one inning, a middle-reliever up for 1-3 innings, but your starter may be able to go 5-9, the whole game now and then. A lot of presses hit that 5,000 mark and don’t buy a lot that’s longer. Why? Usually it’s the budget. At 5-10 cents per word, they may rather buy five stories at 3k, than three stories at 5k. It also depends on how big a name you are. Are they willing to spend that on an unknown? They’ll solicit bigger authors, and be happy to get 5-7500 words. And The New Yorker will pay well, as they have the money. So just keep that 5k mark in mind.
Some quick stats on markets (via Duotrope):
Pro horror up to 5k: 18 markets
Pro horror 5k-7500: 13 markets
Pro fantasy up to 5k: 25 markets
Pro fantasy 5k-7500: 21 markets
Pro science fiction up to 5k: 25 markets
Pro science fiction 5k-7500: 20 markets
And as you get longer, over 6,000 it gets worse. Just keep that in mind. And for semi-pro and up there is also a gap.
9: Time Commitment
Another thing to consider is how much time you have. I encourage my students to write a lot of short stories before they take on a novel. I want them to experiment, to try out different genres, third person vs first, etc. A failure of 3,000 words takes much less time than a failure of 80,000 words. But I also want authors to get used to going through the process—generating ideas, figuring out plots, nailing the Freytag items, understanding their voice and POV, learning to diagnose what is wrong, and then having the tools to fix it. That all takes time. I’m not precious with my stories, so when my muse is working, I don’t take weeks or months to write a story. It’s days for me, maybe weeks. I’ve written a 6,000-word story in one day; 12,000 words of Breaker, my third novel, in one day. Get used to creating, writing, editing, and FINISHING your stories. And then send them out. If you can nail a story that is 3,000 words, three acts in 1,000 words each? Then do it again. And then expand it to 5k. It takes practice.
10: Writing To A Target Length
And then when you’ve got this all sorted out, when you’ve written dozens of stories, you’ll have more command over your tales. YOU will be able to dictate whether this story about a cosmic horror is a bit of flash fiction, or a full story at the 5k mark, or whether you can push it to novelette length, or novella, or beyond. Obviously you have to be interested in the idea. If you’re bored, if you don’t care, then it doesn’t matter what length it is. But if you are curious, invested, and vulnerable—the story can go longer. But you need to learn to control your stories.
At some point, you are going to see an open call, and you need to be able to write that pizza horror story in exactly 3,000 to 5,000 words. It can’t peter out at 1,500 and it can’t bloat to 7,000. They will just not read it. Period. Also, hopefully, you’ll start getting invited into anthologies. And they will have guidelines, too. They do not want to see the maximum word count blown off, as you cruise past the 5,000-word mark and turn in something that is 7,500 words. They are not going to be happy. They have a budget, and need to stick to it. So be professional.
In my entire career, 150 stories published, I’ve only blown my mark one time. I was invited into a new magazine, and my story got away from me. It was more complicated than I thought, the plot more layered, and the scenes I needed to tell the story, I couldn’t cut it below 5,000 words. In fact, it ended up being 6,600 words. I sent them an email, told them I couldn’t get it cut down, it would ruin the story, and said that if it was way too long, I could write them a new story. I apologized. Luckily they loved it, and said keep it as it was, they would take that length. But I could have damaged that relationship. So try not to do that.
Is your story a good idea? Is there enough there to make it work? Is it an interesting idea? Is it original? I don’t know. Those are tough questions. Start with your heart, and a story that excites you. Pour your body, mind, and soul onto the page. Be vulnerable, speak from authority, and do not pull your punches. Start with simple stories—one idea, one emotion, few characters, and a relatively straightforward plot. As you learn to master your craft, you are going to want to write more complicated stories—multiple threads, a depth of emotion, setting across a few different places, larger casts, and more complex plots. That’s going to take more space. If you are still interested, if you’re excited, and headed down the rabbit hole—go as long as it needs to be. But keep the word count maximums in mind, keep control of your story, don’t let it dictate the terms. If you’re in control, that means length, of course, but that also means emotion, story, plot, place, setting, atmosphere, and resonance—the whole experience. You call the shots. Good luck!
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