Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Story Structure Part Six: Quantity:

Among the many structural concerns facing a writer, the question of how lengthy a story will be is one that merits consideration. You'll need different tactics and levels of involvement, depending on how long your story will be.

Is your new project a short-short story (3,000 words or less), a standard short story (up to 15,000 or so), a novella (20,000 to 40,000 words), a novel (50,000 to 120,000 words), or a HUGE NOVEL (150,000 words or more). Is your project a stand-alone work, or part of a series? These are all questions that will affect how you approach the writing process. In the following segments, I'll talk about some of the standard ingredients you'll want to mix in for various sizes of stories.


For a short-short story, you'll only be able to fit in a few scenes, and you'll probably only have one fleshed-out character. Your beginning, middle, and end will have to occur with extraordinary rapidity. In fact, there will be very little “middle” to speak of. Really, you're looking for a vivid character, a few indelible images, and an ending that allows the reader to make many of the invisible connections on their own. As far as setting, you'll have to contextualize the story only if you can do that while developing the plot and character at the same time. No information dumps allowed. For these stories, the compact and direct method of writing from the first person perspective is a good tactic. If you have much dialog, you'll want to be sure that it is all “on topic”. Don't be afraid to jump away from a scene quickly if its work is done. You don't have time for every scene to have a denouement.

Short Story:

For a normal short story, you'll be able to introduce a few more characters, as well as telling a somewhat more complex tale, with several scenes. Setting still must be described concisely, however. You mustn't get wrapped up in details that don't move the story. There's more room for “middle” in this length, but don't plan to tell a generational epic. You'll still want to keep your point of view characters to an acceptable limit. I would suggest no more than two point of view characters for this length. Dialog can play a bigger part in this story length, but should still be targeted to give the most “bang for the buck”. The ending to a standard length short story doesn't have to fall like a coffin lid, but it should be somewhat more solid and satisfying than a short-short.


Novellas are nebulous things. Some of them seem like big short stories, with a limited number of well-drawn scenes and characters, while others are really just novels that didn't quite reach the height limit to go on the merry-go-round. If you're going to push a short story out to twenty or twenty-five thousand words, you'll need to justify that length with a more complex story. Again, in this case, you're putting more “middle” into the tale. It will still feature a limited number of primary characters, and the story itself will be “about” one primary concept. If you've started a novel that simply finishes up early, that's okay, too. Don't try to artificially inflate your page count just to make weight. Some stories are simply meant to be in that middle ground between shorts and novels. Granted, it might be a little harder to find a market, but if the story rocks at thirty seven thousand words, leave it like it is.


They're the dominant form of fiction writing in terms of sales and readership. If there were one form I could skip right over, this would be the one. I won't though, because I'm naturally garrulous. Novels can feature several pivotal characters, an intricate setting, and a complex story. Maybe not all of them at the same time, however. The word count for a novel may seem like an endless amount of space, but it isn't. If you have several pivotal characters with big back-stories and complex struggles working in a deviously complicated web of interconnected antecedent and consequence, you'll find that one hundred thousand words might roll around before you're anywhere near finished. Remember that pacing and tension are just as important in a novel length story as they are in a short-short. Also remember that some of the best stories are the simple ones. A few wonderful characters will always trump a dozen indifferent ones. A handful of well-crafted plot points will form a better tale than dozens of half-baked events. If you're writing with an eye toward publication, most editors like stories between seventy and one hundred thousand words. That gives them a nice page count to work with. Not too thin, not too thick. Just right for the bookstore shelves.


Sometimes, a story will grow to epic proportions, and years of your time will disappear into its pages. These white whales, these gigantic leviathans of the word processor screen—they are equally loved and feared. For some, they have led to great wealth and fame, spurring their avid readers into late night bacchanals of binge reading. For others, they have proven to be soul crushing wells of despair.

The primary difference, of course, is simply that of scale. Huge novels have more characters, more intricate settings, and longer plot lines. It's not uncommon to see three or four separate plot threads moving at the same time in a huge novel. Huge novels may have a cast of characters large enough to band together and conquer a small country. Huge novels may have a timeline that stretches generations. All of these things are fine, and a well-written huge novel can stick with a reader for life. Some of my favorite novels have been titanic in size. The thing to watch out for is this: a book will expand to fit the space available. That expansion, like the expansion of our waist line after we've taken to eating a dozen donuts for breakfast every morning, is not a healthy expansion. There's a difference between a story that has a “fighting weight” of two hundred thousand words and a story that has been allowed to blow up to that heft.

The longer the story, the more chances a writer has to make a big mistake. You're bound to do a few things that you'll regret, even in a short-short. If your story stretches out to something like a thousand manuscript pages, you'll have about twenty-five thousand chances to go astray. The phenomenon that gives big books their bad name is that they're bloated with useless information, they become repetitive, the characters don't hold up with that long in the spotlight, and that they simply don't have enough material to hold the readers' attention. Also, as hard as it is to admit, we all have some bad habits. We use a particular plot device too much. We have too many characters that have the same foibles. We're not clever enough to come up with a new way of describing a recurring event. We're a little neurotic about certain words and plot elements. Whatever. An issue that would never be considered in a novella or a short novel can become terribly annoying over the course of a huge novel.

If possible, never set out to write a huge novel. If your novel turns out to be huge, even though you've harshly and ruthlessly cut away all the non sequiturs, diversions, and side-treks, then so be it. Do your best to make the story as tight and fascinating as you know how, then hope like hell that your readers like it, too. What makes a good huge novel is no different from what makes a good short story. Great characters, lots of tension, unpredictable plotting, and a powerful payoff at the end. Huge novels just make those goals harder to achieve.

Stand Alone or Series:

Especially in genre fiction, the series is an extraordinarily common format. If you're looking to write a series of short stories or novels, a few concerns become more important. Number one, of course, is that the characters in the story must be extensible. What does that mean? It means that they have to be applicable to more than just one story. They have to be sufficiently fascinating to allow you to write wonderful stories around them for years to come. A character that readers will fall in love with is essential to series work. Plotting is important, but all the clever plotting in the world can't overcome a lackluster character. Readers should be sad to have to bid adieu to the characters at the end of series books. They should pine for them, haunting your website and bugging you about writing the next one. Character is key.

The setting for your series must also be a strong component. Whether it's Elizabethan London, modern day Kathmandu, or some fantastical land where evil giants power their cloud castles with the spirits of captured angels, you have to provide a solid backdrop for your series, a place that feels real, vital, and important to your readership. If you're writing about a real place and time, make sure that you do your homework and make the place as realistic as possible. Always know that some of your readers will know whatever topic you write about better than you. You'll sometimes make mistakes, but make sure those mistakes are about vague, small details. Don't get it wrong about the essential nature of your setting. With a fantastical setting, you'll have a more open playing field. Don't forget about what I discussed in the segment regarding internal consistency, though. There's nothing worse than getting your facts mixed up about stuff you created.

Now, there are different ways to write a series of books. In the old, traditional series, the recurring element is the character. In Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, for instance, each book could be read independently. If you hadn't read book eleven, it was still probably okay to read book thirteen. Only the basic elements of the characters and setting were brought across. Each adventure would be complete by the end of the novel. While some small details may change as the books go on, it's usually possible to pick up any of the books and read it without any historical knowledge. This form is still quite popular in the crime/detective genre. You don't need to read all the Spencer books by Robert B. Parker to understand the newest one. The upside to this is that a new reader can read a newly-published book in a long-standing series and enjoy it. She can then delve into the older books and find each one to be a new, different adventure. The downside is that the characters must stay somewhat static throughout the series, so that reading them out of order won't cause a lot of furrowed brows and misunderstandings. Also, there will always have to be some explanation/demonstration of the characters, so that some of the same ground will be covered in every book. This can be tiresome if one reads a series like this one after another.

The other sort of series, one that is somewhat more modern in origin, is the linked series. These can sometimes be duologies, trilogies, or they might have far more entries, as well. These sorts of stories are very common in the fantasy genre. When a series has a recurring story arc that is not resolved at the end of each book, that is a linked series. It's necessary for the reader to start at the beginning and read through the books sequentially. If they don't, there will be a lot of things they don't understand. Think of the difference between Law and Order and 24. If you miss an episode of Law and Order, it's no big deal. You can watch any one of them singly without missing any of the gist of the story. If you watch a single episode of 24, however, you'll end up grasping for facts you don't have. When the story carries over between books, you have a whole different set of concerns. The readers should be reading for the characters, sure, but you'll also have to keep up your end on the ongoing story arc. If you write a whole book that has a great plot and is well done in all respects, but it doesn't forward the big story arc of the series, it will leave the readers somewhat unfulfilled. (Unless you're a Writing God Who Walks The Earth, in which case, you don't need my advice.)

What if, in the middle of the season of 24, Jack Bauer went off and fought drug runners in Timbuckthree for a whole episode, making little or no mention of that bomb that was going to blow up Los Angeles? That would leave the audience wondering what the hell happened, wouldn't it? It's the same with books. Once you start a linked, multi-book story arc, you'll have to resolve it before you can go on to an entirely different idea. It's a big commitment. The linked story give you another point of leverage to keep readers interested, but you'd better be able to weave all the threads into a great conclusion at the end, our you'll have a lot of angry people on your hands. There's no easier way to be vilified and burned in effigy than to screw up a linked series in book seven. Do that, and your readers will mutter your name and ball up their fists in anger for all time.

In the end, what does it all mean? Try to match your intended length with a story structure that's appropriate. There's a logical limitation to how much you can stretch or cut a story without ruining all its good qualities. If you're trying to write a short story, but have the material for a novella, you'll make your story suffer a death of a thousand cuts trying to make weight. If you're trying for that novel and find that you're all finished at thirty-five thousand words, you'll find that all the extra verbiage you stack onto your story to make it to full novel length will just be fat. As the ski jumpers say, “fat don't fly.”

With series books or stories, you'll have to decide if they're going to be linked or episodic. These two concepts have some gray area, of course. There will always be some recurring plot threads in an episodic series, and there will always be some concise elements in a linked series book. Remember that the bigger the undertaking, the more agonizing the death knell if it goes wrong. Many a series has started well, only to degenerate into a painful farce as the plot threads escaped the author's grasp. If you're the sort of person who can stomach outlining, it's wise to outline as far out into the future of the series as possible. With a project as large as a linked series, it's almost impossible to succeed if you don't know where you're trying to take the story on some basic level. Just like sentence structure, the more elaborate and far-flung your story becomes, the harder it will be for you to execute it well.

Next Time: Compression

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