Writing with Length in Mind 108-01

All stories have three things in common: they begin with a status quo, use a conflict to disrupt the status quo, and end when the character either restores the previous status quo, or creates a new one. Depending on the scope of a story, the entire narrative may take place over a few minutes, or a character’s lifetime; generally larger spans of time lead to longer stories.

For some writers length is an afterthought, but for others, including most publishing authors, length is critical. Most publishers will only consider stories that meet specific criteria, including genre and length. The two most common forms are short stories, under 7,500 words, which are published in anthologies, and novels, which are over 40,000 words.

Other lengths include novelettes, which are between 7,500 and 17,500, and novellas, which are between 17,500 and 40,000. Unfortunately most readers tend to prefer either very short, or very long stories, so these formats are less widely accepted by publishers.

Keeping Short Stories Short
Focus on a single protagonist, and a conflict that resolves in a few days. Other characters may wander in for a moment, but only 2-3 characters should repeatedly appear in the story, including the protagonist. Try starting each scene in the middle, close to the height of conflict, and leave the scene as soon as the conflict resolves. When introducing new characters, decide on 1 or 2 features that are critical to the story; whether it’s a character’s red cheeks and booming voice, sloppy clothes, or rough callused hands. A single detail can speak volumes.

Filling Out a Novel
Some authors say that novel chapters are really just a series of short stories, each between 2,000 and 6,000 words long, with most running 3,000-4000 words. Each chapter has its own conflict and resolution, which either resolves or complicates a piece of the overarching conflict of the story. The beginning and ending serve as transitions between each chapter.

A novel chapter may focus on a single character conflict, or explore multiple conflicts, but within a chapter each scene should share a common tone and theme, each scene should focus on a single conflict.

A novel may focus on a single protagonist or alternate between 2-4 protagonists, changing point of view between chapters. A character’s relationships create subplots and explore different ideas. For example; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix continues the ongoing conflict between Harry and Voldemort, but the story also explores issues of trust, romance, reputation, and rumor.

Next Time…
Revising for Length

11 thoughts on “Writing with Length in Mind 108-01

  1. This is a very helpful post, Adam. Thank you for sharing it! I hadn’t realized that one of my works qualified as a novellete, rather than a novella. I was familiar with the word count range that publishers look for in full-length novels. I’m glad I got to further develop my familiarity with word count rules and preferences.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you found it helpful. Next week I’ll be talking about revising a story for length; techniqyes to help you reduce the scope of the story, or draw it out.

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  3. I actually never thought of novel chapters as mini-stories until recently (like last week!). I tend to write them that way, but didn’t know it was a “thing.” It makes complete sense. What you describe as a story’s movement would apply to chapters as well. If a story doesn’t somehow shift, then it’s a “flat” chapter. Excellent post.

    • Thank you.
      One panelist at a convention told me “the main difference between a short story and a chapter is that the chapter’s resolution sets the stage for the next chapter.”
      On one level I agree, though I feel that chapters also have over-arching conflicts and subplots, which are often continuing through the chapter, rather than beginning or ending within it. Still, new perspectives like that help us better understand the craft we’re trying to master.

      • I agree with you. Chapter don’t completely resolve, but they do have an arc, and yes the book’s arc continues on. It is fun. I can bore my friends to death taking about this stuff, but with other writers…it’s pure pleasure. 🙂

      • I often like to think it’s like sedimentary rock. Every chapter needs at least 1 self contained conflict, but there are many others, all at various stages in their overall cycle.

        I think one of the more subtle signs of where the story is as a whole is those plot threads. The beginning, in a general sense, perhaps the first third or even first half, are full of openings, of plot threads being introduced and established, full of potential. Even the resolutions feel more like a fresh opening.

        Then, as the story nears the 2/3 mark, more and more plot threads resolve with a certain finality to them, narrowing the scope to one final conclusion.

        While not a book, the Silent Hill 2 game has a strong sense of this. Early on there’s a certain casualness to the character interactions, but as the game nears its conclusion the character scenes become more intense, with less room for “next time”.

        I agree, it is a pleasure to have conversations like this. In fact, one of my long term goals is to develop a new category of blog posts called “Discussion”, which would be aimed at discussing assorted topics, using writing and review posts as background information/foundation for the dialogue. Of course, it may take me a while to properly develop that.

        Thank you again.

      • Ditto.
        If you’re looking for something specific, feel free to browse the menus. I maintain general lists and indexes for both the writing and review posts (shameless plug).

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