How long is this story going to be?

Post from Patricia Wrede

How you tell how long a story will be before you write it?

The first short answer is, you don’t. The slightly longer answer is, “mainly through experience, though you won’t always be right.” The really long answer is … How long a story will be depends on three things: what your natural length is, how narrowly focused your story idea is or can be, and the way the writer’s process interacts with everything else.

The rest of the post is about those three factors.

My personal natural length is 120,000 words, or used to be. It might be longer now. It’s hard to tell because all I know for sure is that lately I’ve been writing really long books and sometimes really short books. However, for years and years, I kept writing books that were about 120,000 words. These books might then go up or bit a down during revision, but the initial length of the finished draft was pretty close to 120k. That’s still close to the finished length for some (TANO, say).

It’s definitely much, much easier for me to write a novel of 120,000 words than a short story of 8000 words. I mean, it might take longer to write the novel. But it isn’t harder. It’s easier. (A lot easier.) Short stories connected to larger works are easier for me than short stories that aren’t connected to anything else. (That’s why I thought Sure, I can do that, about writing Tuyo-world stories for the newsletter. Unsurprisingly, they are going up in length.)

Patricia Wrede adds: It is, in my opinion, easier to learn craft by writing what comes naturally (in terms of length). Writing is hard enough as it is. Why make it harder?

Yeah, no kidding!

Then the next point:

Some story ideas are tightly focused on a specific, self-contained thing—a self-contained incident, a decision, a significant moment in a character’s life. Those usually are short-story ideas with a minimal number of scenes and characters. Other story ideas are bigger from the get-go, involving more time, more characters, more places, and more going on in general. Those are usually novels, or even series. 

One big reason for having a natural length in the first place is that the ideas that occur to you are either one kind or the other kind. That may be the single biggest reason.

Then Wrede continues:

One of the big differences between novelists and short-story writers seems to be how easily one gets distracted by a cool new character/incident/plot-twist/background-detail. In a novel, there’s room for digressions about the historical significance of the Taj Mahal, the interesting family life of a secondary character, or the unexpected rain of diamonds on the third Thursday of Sextember.

And I’m suddenly really distracted! That rain of diamonds, what a great idea!

Actually, in practice, it’s “the interesting family life of a secondary character.” I get interested in secondary characters VERY easily and usually like letting secondary characters pick up more story. If that doesn’t turn out to happen, or if I can’t make it fit the book, that’s when the character may be cut entirely. It’s painful to cut or pare back a character after I’ve already made him into a character I like and find interesting. I do it pretty often, but I don’t like to. Sometimes I bring them back, like Selili and Tathimi. More often, such characters vanish forever, which I always regret.

I guess I’ll peg this one thing as the primary reason I tend to write long: easily getting invested in minor characters and wanting to bring them into the story and make them integral.

That and enjoying throwing thinks like an occasional rain of diamonds.

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1 thought on “How long is this story going to be?”

  1. A Diabolical Bargain snuck up on me by pretending to be a novelette.

    I had to write to the end three times because the first two times, the hero announced he wasn’t happy yet.

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