I receive quite a number of questions about how long a story should be and how to alter a story so that it matches length expectations. Many writers, especially younger ones, ask me how to lengthen stories. Yet, it’s interesting that I have never heard from a writer who wanted to know how to shorten a story.
In any case, how long should a story be?
That question is impossible to answer definitively. I have long believed that authors should write their stories until they bring them to a satisfactory conclusion, always keeping a good pace and never bogging down in unnecessary details.
The bottom line – The story is finished when it is finished, whether it is 30,000 words or 300,000 words.
Yet, unpublished novelists have to face market reality. If you present a 200K word cozy mystery to publishers or agents, they probably won’t even touch it. The same is true for a 40K fantasy novel. These story lengths don’t match genre norms, and first-time novelists won’t get a pass from the gatekeepers of traditional publishing.
If you hope to get a gatekeeper’s attention, you will increase your chances by keeping your story length within expected parameters. A novel in any genre is usually at least 40,000 words long, but that’s just the bare minimum to qualify for the “novel” label. The gatekeepers expect most novels to be considerably longer.
Of course, if you self-publish, you don’t have to worry about being rejected because of your story’s length. Still, remember that readers might not want to invest the time and money it takes to dive into a lengthy book if they are not familiar with the author. Your best bet is to start out by adhering to the standard length for your genre.
Opinions on book lengths are many and varied, but here are some guidelines based on my experience:
- Among the shorter-length (60K to 80K) genres are romances, cozy mysteries, and chick lit.
- Longer-length (80K to 100K +) genres include fantasy, historical fiction, thrillers, and science fiction. (Science fiction can also be quite short. For example, Fahrenheit 451 is about 46K words) .
- Your target age group is also a consideration. Middle grade (8 to 12 years old) tends to run 30K to 55K with some as long as 60K. Young adult (usually teenagers) runs from 45K to 80K with fantasy titles as long as 120K.
- For just about any adult genre, a novel that is 80K words won’t sound the length alarm, and 70K to 100K will probably also be fine, depending on the genre.
Traditionally published novels abound that don’t fall into these ranges, but such standard breakers are usually not by first-time authors. Once authors sell well, they have more freedom to write books that are non-standard in length and content.
Now to address the question I frequently receive – How do I make my story longer?
First, develop your characters thoroughly. Many young writers push a story along too quickly. They don’t allow readers sufficient time to become emotionally connected to the characters. The writers want to get to the intense action or some kind of crisis as soon as possible, perhaps thinking that the time spent in a character’s ordinary life might bore readers.
The fear of boredom is legitimate only if the writing is boring. If you begin with mystery and raise questions that the readers want to see answered, they will continue turning pages to find the answers. See this post for more on how to start a story.
Second, add a subplot involving one or more other characters. The events taking place in the protagonist’s point of view (POV) are usually not the only ones occurring. Something else is happening beyond the protagonist’s knowledge. Consider writing what an ally of the protagonist is doing, which will require writing that scene from his or her POV. Also consider writing what the villain is doing, assuming you don’t mind revealing his schemes.
When you construct the sub-plot scenes, be sure to make them relevant. The activities the secondary characters undertake should have a bearing on the protagonist’s journey. It is helpful for the secondary arc to climax at about the same time, or just before, the protagonist’s climactic event occurs. This way, the protagonist can benefit from what his or her allies have accomplished.
Third, include rest periods after conflicts. During the protagonist’s journey, he or she will run into conflicts that often bring temporary defeat. After these conflicts, the protagonist needs time to rest, reflect on the recent conflict, and plan the next move. During the rest periods, allow the theme of your story to come to the surface a little at a time. What is the character learning from the journey? These periods are a great time to explore the character’s heart.
I hope to look at how to shorten overly long stories in the next writing tip.
If you have questions or comments, please post them.
Categories: Writing Tips