Basics of writingNovel writingShort fiction

Is your story the right size?

From Rick:

This may sound like a strange topic, but it reflects a problem I’ve seen on several occasions. It means: does your story CONCEPT match the length allocated to it?

The length problem spans all types of stories from flash fiction (discussed in a recent blog here) to multi-book novels. I’ve discussed this topic in part in a previous blog (Novel Writing for Beginners–Part 1), so you might want to read that one.

I’m sure you’ve encountered novels that seemed far too long for the amount of story they contained, and thus the story dragged. When I was taking writing workshops, some of the short stories I presented for critique received the comment “This feels more like the start of a novel.” None of us would disagree that the Harry Potter story required several books to tell the story. While Rowling certainly could have told Harry’s story in one novel, her concept had enough richness for multiple novels (and probably would have suffered considerably if appreciably shortened).

For me, one novel I felt was longer than it needed to be was Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. I would have been happier with it at 400 pages instead of 600. Just my opinion, though. Many readers enjoyed it as is, but I’ve also spoken with some who shared my feelings. I’m always suspicious of new writers who tell me they’re working on a multi-novel series for their first book.

I’m not alone in that, either. Agents usually cringe over query letters from first-time authors that say the novel is 200,000 words or the first of a trilogy. Past experience has taught them that all too often such submissions will almost certainly go into the reject pile. Indeed, an agent could well reject a manuscript based on its length alone, without even reading it or after only a few pages. While this may not seem fair to writers, it’s very difficult to sell 500-page-and-over novels from new writers to publishers or to convince the reading public that a huge novel from someone they’ve never heard of is worthwhile. This applies just as much to self-published work, even if (or especially if) it’s priced very low.

The real issue is not the actual length, but whether the story is strong enough and rich enough to support such a page count. How can you tell if what you have is a novel, novella, or short story? Oddly enough, it’s not the story concept itself that determines this. The key determiners are the plot complications that can arise from the story idea and the cast of characters. What’s going to fill those 500 pages? Is it a lot of backstory and story details that have little direct bearing on the present story? Or are those pages composed of conflict and complications that drive the story along? Think of it as the difference between a half-hour TV show and an hour-long one. Is your story a single episode or does it have series potential? Are we talking something like “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica” (the new series) that are on-going stories, or are we dealing with Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot mysteries, where each episode is a complete story.

New writers who are enamored with epic novels may mistakenly believe that their story idea is so wonderful that it’s equal to Lord of the Rings in its scope and sweep. Undaunted, they set out writing with that goal in mind and weave every minute detail that comes to mind into their novel. What often happens is that half of what’s written has not direct bearing on the story or is unnecessary, boring detail.

Having a broad vision is not always a good thing for a writer. You must learn to edit your thoughts to ensure you idea will be properly expressed. In the previous “Novel Writing For Beginners–Part 1” blog, I recommended writing out a short, complete synopsis consisting of a few hundred words at most. From that, you should be able to determine whether your idea is big enough to let you craft that epic work, or whether you should consider something less ambitious in its scope. A story doesn’t have to be hundreds of pages to be enjoyable. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to judge what length will best serve your idea. You might even consider writing it as a piece of flash fiction. Once done, you can look for ways to expand it with “what if” questions.

Once you have your synopsis and possibly a short story, it’s time to fill it out. You do this by finding ways to complicate the story starting with a simple example.

BASIC STORY: You go to the store to buy some groceries for dinner and come back home because your wife left a message on the answering machine saying she has to work late. You get to the checkout realize you’ve forgotten your wallet. By coincidence, the person behind you is a neighbor and offers to pay for your items, saying you can pay him back when you get home. You accept and head out of the store, groceries in hand. Before you get to your car, you hear sirens and three police cars, lights flashing, pull into the parking lot. You watch to see what’s going on. The police enter the store and shortly come out with your neighbor in handcuffs. Two other police officers are next to your neighbor’s minivan and holding up what looks like a couple of automatic weapons.

You could end the story there or with a few more lines to wrap it up, or have him watching the news on TV that night to find out what the arrest was all about. Granted, it’s not the most thrilling of stories, but it’s a good illustration. Now let’s carry the idea further and see how we might expand it.

WHAT IF #1: After the police extract the weapons from the minivan, they drag someone out of the vehicle and it’s your wife.

WHAT IF #2: Your wife screams in your direction that you’re also involved. The police come over, search your vehicle, and find illegal drugs hidden in the trunk.

And you can continue on this path until you’ve outlined a larger piece or introduced enough complications and additional characters to turn it into a novella or novel. If you want a good idea of how a writer does this sort of story magic, go read Already Gone by John Rector (whom I hope to have as a guest on this blog in the next couple of months). If you go to, you can read the first chapter, and after doing so ask yourself all sorts of what-if questions about the character and story. Try it, then go buy the book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

This method of building a story might be more successful for beginning writers than the alternative of starting with a huge concept because it lets you build and edit as you go along instead of pouring your heart out onto endless pages only to learn that half of what you’ve written needs to be cut. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen to new writers on many occasions. It can be discouraging and probably something you should try to avoid. The best way, in my opinion, in to go into any writing project with a plan. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline, but using the seat-of-the-pants writing technique is risky for a new writer who hasn’t learned the basics of the craft. I did it with my first novel (and I wasn’t a novice in terms of knowing the basics of writing). That first draft took me nearly three years, and the result was something nowhere near ready for publication.

To help you along, I’ve listed below some story ideas culled from a list I keep. Pick one or more and try the what-if approach. Or use an idea of your own. See where it takes you, but start small and go for a short piece at first. If you like what you turn out, consider workshopping it on SILVER PEN for help polishing it, developing your craft, and perhaps turning it into a publishable piece. The site is open to everyone 13 and up and is growing daily.


Two young parents against physical punishment of their kids and for capital punishment.

A Shakespearean-type character

Modern story about a girl whose mother insists on her telling fortunes after school when she has homework to do because they need the money. The daughter is good at it, and customers flock to her.

I don’t know where he came from or who he was. I think he saved my life, but I’m not sure of that either.

Post-retirement man who never married and ponders what he might have done with his life, what might have been had it taken another course.

You’re in deep shit. So far, you’re the only one who knows it. Fortunate for you. Damage control will be easier/is still possible.

Not what if I hadn’t been born, but what if I had been born.


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