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