Overcoming story length

For beginning and amateur writers, knowing how long their story should be can sometimes be a difficult task. Many are high school or college students that are used to having the number of required pages given to them ahead of time (sometimes even in a fiction class, sadly). Given the characters that we chose to develop and the situations that we want them to engage in, knowing how long we want them in that situation can be a difficult task. Here are a few of my suggestions.

First of all, avoid the flash fiction trap. Flash fiction is a one to two page story. My time spent as the fiction editor for my school’s literary magazine (perfect time to give them a link but no one knows the password for the page so it’s trapped in the late 1990s) taught me much about amateur writing. For some reason, young writers love the idea of flash fiction. Maybe it seems high concept to them. Maybe they like the idea of having something be, “complete,” in only one page. It’s hard to say, I’ve fallen into the trap myself.

This is not to say flash fiction is never successful. I’ve read good flash fiction. I don’t think it’s a wise idea to get yourself into the habit of only writing a story for a couple of pages when the characters introduced and their situation could easily play itself out through 10 pages. Same can be said for all three to five page stories. If you made it to five there is definitely a lot more you can say. In general, short stories are a snapshot, so don’t crop it.

On the flip side, don’t over write. There is a crossing point when a short story begins to encroach into novella territory. If you’ve gotten that far, you’ve probably gone in over your head. I believe writing something to that length or greater can’t come purely out of inspiration and would require a lot of planning and mapping (as in detail mapping, it’s very easy to lose track of characters and ideas the longer a piece becomes).

The general rule I like to follow is that you want to say enough with your story, but you want to say the least amount possible. In a short story, where space is at such a premium, every line and every word should be carefully selected. Think about your details and their necessity. Think about the length of your dialogue and what it does to advance your action. It can be hard work, but if you end up with an eight plus page story with just the right pacing and well picked details, you’ll know you’ve accomplish something good.

Or hey, prove me wrong and write a kick-ass piece of flash fiction.

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2 Responses

  1. Nick – What an interesting blog! While I am much more of a reader/editor myself, I appreciate your insight and knowledge into the world of fiction writing (though wishing I could take a red pen to it!).

    For yourself and other aspiring writers, a website to check out may be http://www.autonomy.com. A community of readers and writers, people are invited to submit their stories, which are then voted on by other members. At the end of a certain time period the most popular entries are then reviewed by an actual board at HarperCollins Publishing in NYC – I’ve read a couple members are getting started this way!

    I will definitely continue to follow your blog, can’t wait to see what you write in the future!

    -NovelWhore
    http://www.novelwhore.wordpress.com

  2. In response to your flash fiction comment – I don’t know about other young writers, but I use flash fictions mainly as a way to develop my characters. If I think they’re relatively good, I may use them for something else, but for the most part they’re just development tools.

    I don’t write many other short stories, so I’m out of comments for now. But I like your blog, it’s interesting.

    🙂

    -Jaxibella

    http://jaxibella.wordpress.com

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