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Feb 062013

How long is your story? How long should it be? Is a novella better than a novel for a first time writer? Should you write something as epic as War and Peace or keep it under 100k words? Such weighty problems that some new writers obsess over are really simple to figure out once you realize what the real questions are.

First a brief discussion of the different story lengths. These are rough estimates and can be flexible depending on the market you are submitting to. Be sure to check the guidelines. If you are self pubbing, it’s kind of up to you but your readers will expect something like this:

Flash Fiction – up to 1,000 words

Short Story – 1,500 to 20,000 words

Novella – 25,000 – 50,000 words

Novel – 55,000 – 300,000 words

So just what is best? Should you start small and work your way up? Yea, I’m just full of questions on this one. So let’s get to the answers. For almost every question I’ve asked so far this post the answer is: it depends on your story.

Each story will have a length preset in the idea that starts it all. Some ideas are small and will produce short stories. Some are huge and produce novels (really big ones will be epic length up near the 300K size). Simple ideas don’t need a lot of words to get through to the reader. The more complex, the more words needed. So there you have it in a nut shell.

There is more to it than that of course. Each break in the the spectrum has it’s own rules about what makes a story work in that range. You can’t write flash the same way that you write a novel. You’ll make yourself crazy if you try. The same is true if you try to write a short story like a really short novella. The divisions come about naturally from how much you can do with that many words.

With Flash you are talking about a scene. In 1000 words you don’t have the space to worry about character development or even much of a plot. That’s not to say you can’t have a strong and moving story – the evidence is out there. There are many very strong stories that are nothing more than a scene. Flash is all about impressions and mood. It can leave you staring up at the dark ceiling until way to late because you just can’t sleep with the kinds of thoughts you are thinking. It can make you fall in love with the next person you see. Sometimes what you want to say is best said indirectly.

Short stories are about small happenings. They are very focused, with a small cast and only a few places. Many shorts take place in the course of just one hour with a very detailed scene. Others span years with only vague impressions of place. A short story is going to be one in which the couple in question are the only ones who make it on stage. The classic stories of the Twilight Zone are the kind that make for good short stories.

When you get into Novella, you are talking about more details and more characters. Novellas can support longer time lines and twists and turns before you get to the end of the plot. Where flash, and to a certain extent short stories can live without a plot, novellas must have one. The MCs also must change over the course of the novella. As you get into the longer versions of this form, you can also find room for a subplot. At this length, you have the room for a larger cast. Peripheral character can show up and have speaking roles, like the MC’s best friend who gives advice about the cute guy across the bar. Not all the details need to be directly related to moving the plot forward. Some can be devoted entirely to world building or character development. Character development is key starting in this length. Novellas are long enough that your character should change over the course of the story, and that change needs to be shown. That means you will need to spend some words showing how the character was at the beginning of the story so that your readers will be able to see the changes brought on by the story.

The transition between Novella and Novel is the hardest one to find. The longer your story gets the more the details need to build the world and characters, not just the plot. Novels typically have subplots, though they are not required. Subplots help with the world building and character development by showing more than what is directly connected to the main plot. They can also help move the main plot along by showing events that alter the conditions in which the main plot is occurring. More characters get to show up on stage, such as the waiter when your MCs are having a crucial conversation over dinner at a fancy restaurant.

So, back to your story… What size idea do you have? Does your story need the deep world building of Lord of the Rings? Is it smaller than that? How many characters are involved? How much world building? When you know the answers to these kinds of question, you are ready to decide what length of story is best. You’ll have to answer that separately for each story you write. Never fear, the world needs all kinds of stories. Write the length your story wants and worry about the rest after that.

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