I Could Make it Longer if You Like the Style*

An interesting post from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about how long stories should be. In the post, FictionFan mentions that some stories end too abruptly, and could be expanded. On the other hand, we’ve all read fiction that would have benefited from cutting out a number of pages. So, how long is the right length for a story? Of course, the answer to that question depends a lot on the story itself. Some stories take longer to tell than others do. That’s why there’s microfiction, the short story, the novella, the novel, and so on. One of the skills in writing is choosing the story format that will best match the story.

For example, C.J. Sansom has chosen longer novels for his Matthew Shardlake series. And that makes sense as a fit. This is historical crime fiction, so a certain amount of space in the novels is devoted to evoking the time and place of the story. There’s also information about some historical events that readers might not know; weaving those details into the story adds to its length. The first novel in the series, Dissolution, is 400 pages. Heartstone is 658 pages. The others are long, too. Is that too long for a novel? Everyone’s got different tastes, but many people say the stories aren’t dragged out, and the books don’t really get bogged down. For that series, a longer novel might very well be the best fit.

On the other hand, Ellery Queen’s novella The Lamp of God is 64 pages. The Fourth Side of the Triangle is 186 pages. You might argue that the ‘Queen team’ wrote during the Golden Age and in the decades right after that time. Books tended to be shorter during those years (although, of course, that’s not a hard and fast rule). But there’s also the argument that these stories are best told in novella and short novel length. The focus is on the plot – the who/how/whydunit of the novel. So there’s less need for the background details and setting details that can add to the length of a novel. To add a lot of detail to this sort of story might end up ‘padding’ it too much, so that the reader would be bogged down.

There are many authors who tell some stories in novel form, and others in short story or novella form. Lawrence Block, for instance, has written novels, novellas, and short stories featuring his PI protagonist Matthew Scudder. The same is true of his Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. Some of these stories require more detail and scene-setting, as well as more background information, than others do. So Block has made use of a variety of different formats.

So did Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile is 288 pages, a long novel for that era. There’s an argument that the novel benefits from that length. In this case, the who/whydunit are best understood if one has some background on the characters and their interactions, and that adds to the length of the book. Is the book too long? Everyone’s different, but I don’t think it is. Christie kept the focus on the plot, and used the background information to provide clues (and ‘red herrings’), rather than just as ‘padding.’ That said, though, Christie also wrote several collections of short stories. One of them, The Thirteen Problems, features Miss Marple and a group of friends, who gather every Tuesday to share mysteries (that’s the overarching tie that binds the stories together). Each story details one of the mysteries, and each is self-contained. The individual tales need very little background information or scene-setting. It makes sense, then, that these would be short stories, rather than novels.

As it happens, I’m facing this challenge (how long should a story be?) at the moment myself. I’m working on a story based on a small bit of flash fiction I wrote a few years ago. At first I thought I was writing a novel. I had the main points of the plot in mind, and had started putting the story together. But as the story has evolved, I’m thinking it might be better as a novella. That means re-thinking some of what happens in the story, and moving along with the plot more quickly than I might have done. But I think (I hope!) the end result will be a more engaging story.

And that’s one of the choices that every author has to make. Is this a novel-sized story? A short story? Something else? It isn’t always an easy decision, and sometimes, authors (or publishers) get it wrong. There are stories that could be longer and more involved. There are stories that are too long and badly in need of editing. Finding that match is part of creating a polished piece of work.

What do you think of all of this? Is there a story length you prefer? If you’re a writer, how do you choose the format of your story?

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be FictionFan’s excellent blog? Fine reviews and discussion (Oh, and Mr. Darcy 😉) await you there.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Paperback Writer.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

27 thoughts on “I Could Make it Longer if You Like the Style*

  1. Such an interesting question, Margot, and one I often ponder. We have all read novels that would have been much better if they had been shorter. For myself I find that a perfect short story length is between 4,000 and 5,000 words. When it comes to novels, I tend to write short rather than long and sometimes wonder if I have enough material. And yet, invariably I find that it comes in at almost exactly 75,000 words. And you are right about the Shardlake novels: they are long, but not too long. So how long should a work of fiction be? As long as it takes – and no longer! For that reason, I am glad that novellas seem to have come back into fashion. It is good to have a halfway house between the short story and the novel.

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    1. Thanks, Christine. I find the question really interesting, too, and sometimes quite challenging. Like you, I tend to write shorter novels rather than long ones, and I’ve wondered, too, whether I was saying enough. I try to put in everything that serves the story, and not include what doesn’t, but that leaves a lot of room for latitude! You’re right, I think, that it’s a good thing the novella is popular again; it’s a satisfying ‘in-between’ when you have more to say than a short story, but not enough for a full-length novel.

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  2. Thank you for the link and the kind words, Margot! 😀

    Despite having been complaining about that book being too short, as you know my usual complaint is that books are too long. However, I love the Shardlake series and when I see that the new one is always longer than the one before, my heart sings! As you say, the historical context needs space and he does it so well. But I’ve done a lot of research on this question 😉 and my focus group of one is convinced that short stories should be between 30 and 40 pages, while crime novels should be in the range of 280-330 pages. Lit-fic can be longer, but only if it needs it! I’ve definitely noticed that after a few years of extremely bloated crime fiction, they seem to be coming back down to nearer my preferred length, but some still have too much padding. Seriously, though, I do think it’s important for writers to decide what the story needs and go for that length, rather than deciding on a length and then stretching or shrinking the story to fit, if that makes sense.

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    1. It’s my pleasure to plug your fine blog, FictionFan!

      There are some series (and C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series is one of them) that really do require more length to set the scene, cast the characters, and so on. But in general, you and your focus group 😉 have a well-taken point that novels should be limited in length. Too short, and the reader feels, well, cheated. Too long, and that mires the reader in the story. It’s not an easy decision, and, as you say, it all depends crucially on the story. How much space does it need?

      It’s interesting to note that some novels are now getting a bit shorter in length. I wonder if that’s because publishers saw that people simply don’t want doorstop books, or if it’s for another reason. I’ve heard, though, that ‘Robert Galbraith’s’ next Strike novels is over 900 pages long. I can’t swear that’s true, but I’ve heard from reliable sources. It’ll be interesting to see how well that sells, and what the story is that requires that much telling. To me, your last comment makes perfect sense when it comes to length. It’s all about telling the story, and letting that determine whether it’s going to be a novel, novella, short story, etc..

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    2. 900 pages?! That sounds ridiculous! I’ll wait for the reviews. In fact, I do wonder if excessive length affects sales. While Mantel’s latest novel will undoubtedly be a best seller – in fact, I think it was even before it came out – I’ve seen surprisingly few reviews of it around the blogosphere. I wonder how many people, like me, think they’ll put it off till that mysterious fantasy of one day when we have more time…

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      1. You know, I thought about that, too, FictionFan. I’ve read a few reviews, but you’re right; there are only a few. Mantel has talent, but I think it may be off-putting to have a length like that.

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  3. Stories are as long as they need to be. I know when I start a story how long it’s going to be (roughly speaking), which is a bit weird really because I never know what a story is about until I’ve started it. haha 🙂

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    1. Oh, that is interesting, Cat! I think we all go about writing in a different way. I have to admit I don’t always know what the final length of what I write is; sometimes I wish I did! And you know, if you don’t know exactly what a story’s about, it allows for all sorts of possibilities.. 🙂

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      1. It drives my students mad when I tell them a story is as long as it needs to be, but there are some indicators. Less than 4 characters is probably a short story. 🙂

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      2. Yeah, that’s a good indication, Cat. 🙂 And I know what you mean about students wanting structure, too. My students want a lot of structure, and that’s not always how writing is. There are some basics, of course, but as you say, a story is as long as it needs to be. There aren’t always set rules.

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      3. You can teach structure and the complexity of fichtean curves for crime novels and teach people why certain stories benefit from different narrative arcs but you can’t teach them how long a story is or how to feel a story. I think that’s where people trip up, they don’t realize that a lot of the nuance comes from within and can’t be taught.
        Meanwhile, I’ll be teaching crime writing next year, so, no doubt the “how long should a story be” question will be one of the first questions asked! 🙂

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      4. I’ll bet it will, Cat! I think your students will have a fabulous experience! And you’re absolutely right; there are some things you can teach (like structure, Freytag’s Pyramid, and so on). But others, like length, can’t be taught. That’s something that comes with the experience of writing, I think. That and that inner sense of what a story ought to be.

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  4. I never know how long a story is going to be until over a third of the way through it. It naturally begins to lead to the finishing post. Short stories are usually about 10,000 words for me unless I have a specific word count given to me. As for novels, I am 98,000 words in and have been asked to write more. I guess I write as much as the story dictates. Interesting conversation. Thanks.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the conversation, Jane. I don’t usually know exactly how long a story will be, either, until I get a bit into writing it. Then, as it takes shape, I get a sense of its length. I tend to writer shorter stories and novels, but I think that might be partly because I started out writing non-fiction academic things, which are often different when it comes to length.

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      1. Thanks for asking, Jane. The writing is coming along. Right now I’m working on this probably-going-to-be-a-novella, which isn’t a Joel Williams story. Then I’ve got a plot in mind for another Williams novel. We’ll see how it all goes. Hope you are well and your writing is coming along, too!

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      2. That is good news Margo, I hope it all goes well. I shall look forward to it all. I have your latest on my Kindle, TBR pile, but with my son so ill I have not been in the mood for anything much. I am supposed to be adding to Ms B for the agent who wants to take me on but at the present my mind wanders. I will be on the case soon I am sure. I look forward to the new Jake W and also your novella. Am I right in thinking you are now a full professor? How wonderful, many congrats. Keep safe and well. xxx

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      3. I am so sorry your son is so ill, Jane. I think there’s nothing worse for a parent than a child’s illness. Little wonder your Mrs. B. work is ‘on hold’ and so is your reading. I hope things ease up soon. No, I am not a full professor, but thanks very much for the good thoughts!

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  5. It’s a question we all need to weigh when planning our stories. For novels I try to shoot for around 82K+/- words, some need more to round out the story, some need less. As a reader, I steer clear from 500-600+ page novels. Grisham is the exception. He’s such a fabulous writer I trust that I’m in good hands. Conversely, King has a tendency to be long-winded. I bet if he cut 100 pages or so, he wouldn’t lose any important story elements. Maybe that’s the defining answer. If we trust the author to spin an exciting tale, we’ll go along for the ride regardless of length.

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    1. I think you have a point, Sue. If we believe the author is going to make the journey a good one, we’ll take the ride, even if it’s a longer one. If the story does start to lag, we step enjoying the trip. That’s when we get the sense that a book would have been better if it had been shorter (to me, that’s where good editing comes in). It sounds as though you have a solid limit to the length of what you write, and that helps your novels keep their focus. And in the end, that’s what guides a story (at least to me).

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  6. Margot: I never go looking for a long novel. I found Stieg Larsson’s trilogy with Lisbeth Salander compelling and the pages flew by. I stopped reading Elizabeth George when every novel got longer and longer. Rex Stout wrote wonderful Nero Wolfe mysteries with nary a book becoming a door stopper. I hesitate when the page count goes past 350 pages.I did find it interesting that no one above spoke of ceasing to read a specific author because of length. Might you have decided to stop reading an author due to the high page count of their books.

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    1. I don’t look for long novels, either, Bill. If a story is compelling and happens to be a long novel, then, as you say, the pages fly by, and you don’t notice the length. On the other hand, even a short novel can drag on and on if it’s not done well. I agree with you, too, about Stout’s work. He wrote some excellent novels, and the Nero Wolfe novels never feel too long. I’m sure there are lots of people who’ve stopped reading an author because the books got too long. I felt that way about Elizabeth George, as you did. I also thought Ruth Rendell’s books started to get too long for my taste. But that’s just me; others may disagree.

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  7. Another interesting post Margot. I’ll read all sorts and enjoy them. I do have to push myself to read longer books and I often reject books I would very likely enjoy because of their length… 400 plus pages needs serious consideration. Preferred length is probably anything under 300. Flying in the face of that I am slowly meandering through Robert Littell’s The Company at 1280-odd pages…. a bite at a time

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    1. Thanks, Col. I need to be really motivated to read a long book, too. And, like you, when I do read a longer book, I do it in smaller ‘bites.’ I’ve found it’s easier to enjoy a longer book if I take my time than it is if I rush through it. But, like you, I can enjoy books of lots of different lengths if they’re well-written.

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