I just delivered a talk to a local writer’s group (www.LCRWriters.org) on story length and how to trim stories when you need to fit them into a certain word count. I’ve talked about several aspects of this topic here before, but some of it is new to the blog, so I decided it would be a good post. While the focus is on short stories, much of the information can be applied to longer works.
It was an hour-long presentation, which is why it’s a significantly longer post than I usually do. I’ve edited it only slightly from the presentation. It was well received and yielded some great questions.
There was a time many decades back when no one really cared about word count in stories or how you categorized them. If you go back to the times of people like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’d guess that the cost of books or magazines or whatever was based on the time and materials required to print them (typesetting, printing costs, and so forth).
Take a look at the length of the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example. Most of them are what we’d consider short stories, despite many of them having been made into movies or hour-length TV shows. However, four of them are considered novels, although lengthwise they’re more like novellas: “A Study in Scarlett,” The Sign of Four,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Valley of Fear.” I’ll talk about size categories in a few moments.
No one really cared about how long something was. It was however long it needed to be to tell the story properly. Of course, they didn’t have the distractions or competition of other media. People had time to read. Early Victorian novels (Charles Dickens’ era) were published in serialized form in periodicals or newspapers. Prior to that time, books were a premium item and literacy was not high. By the 19th century, as literacy and demand rose, serialized fiction rose in popularity. It’s well known that writers got paid by the word, which is why Dickens wrote such long stories.
After doing a bit of research, I was surprised to learn that authors of what later became novels (Henry James and Herman Melville, for example) originally wrote in serials. The Count of Monte Cristo was done over 139 installments.
I also learned this fact from Wikipedia: “One of the first significant American works to be released in serial format was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published over a 40-week period by The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue.”
Even today, we still see “novels” being done as serialized fiction on the web.
Here’s another interesting piece of information. Did you ever wonder why all mass-market paperbacks were priced pretty much the same, no matter the size? It was because of something called the Fixed Book Price Agreement (FBPA).
Wikipedia says this: “The key idea of an FBPA is to promote non-price competition between booksellers in order to promote the sale of little-known, difficult, or otherwise culturally interesting books rather than catering only to blockbuster readers. To do so, an FBPA is deemed to ensure that the booksellers that provide the corresponding presale services are able to recoup their higher costs with a guaranteed margin on blockbusters.”
Whenever publishing costs rose, the price of paperbacks all went up evenly. In some countries, the prices were fixed by law. We saw this in non-mass-market paperbacks as well, although there was room for price variation for expensive-to-produce books. But bestseller hardbacks all ranged within a few dollars of each other. Of course, once Amazon came along and started discounting, everything went to hell (from the publishers’ perspectives). And indie authors screwed it up even more by undercutting the Big Guys on their novels. I find it amusing that publishers today still believe that readers are willing to pay premium prices for their favorite authors, and refuse to attribute declining sales to that fact that they maintain higher prices.
What does this all have to do with the length of novels? Somewhere along the line, publishers decided that the average novel should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. If you submitted a novel to a publisher that was outside these limits (assuming they wanted it at all), you’d be asked to cut or expand it to fit within these limits. There were exceptions, of course, with some established authors and in certain genres (like fantasy) where readers expected longer works, but if you were a newbie—even in these genres—you stood a slim chance of acceptance if you violated these limits.
Another exception was YA fiction. Publishers deemed that younger readers didn’t have the attention span of adults and would not read longer books. YA novels ran more in the 40K-60K range, and if you tried to go longer, you’d run into acceptance issues from publishers. After all, publishers knew best; they understood the market, didn’t they?
There were also slight economic factors with larger books. A higher page count increased the printing cost. Even though it wasn’t a lot, the price had to be kept the same as all other paperbacks, which meant lower profits on those larger books.
Another factor balancing this was what readers “expected” a novel to be in terms of size for their money. A thin book priced at $5, when much thicker ones had the same price, could be a problem in terms of sales. I remember owning a number of sci-fi two-in-one novels. The book had two shorter novels back to back (often by different authors entirely), but the resulting book was the thickness of single novels.
Publishers also believed that many people did not want to read “big” books, except in rare cases. Novels the length of War and Peace and Les Misérables weren’t going to cut it in the modern world. However, what did happen is that a longer book might be broken into two or three books. Lord of the Rings was never written as three novels. It was ONE book with a word count over 450,000 words! But publishers figured that no one would buy one thick book. So, they split it up. I find it interesting that you can purchase it in one volume now (1100 pages in the paperback version I have.
Only authors who had established themselves as salable could get by with bigger books. The first Harry Potter book was only 77,000 words (slightly above the normal YA size), but I’m guessing it made it because of the genre. The second Harry Potter was 85K, but the other five were 107K, 190K, 257K, 169K, 198K respectively. Page-count-wise, the longest Harry Potter novel (The Order of the Phoenix) was 870 pages. But notice where they began. As it turned out, YA readers really would read long books if they appealed to them.
Here are some good examples to set things in length perspective. Probably everyone you ask would consider H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine to be a novel, right? Well, it’s only 35,000 words. Orwell’s Animal Farm is 30,000 words, and Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (that most consider to be a short story) is 26,000 words. All of these fall below even YA novel length.
But why is “The Old Man and the Sea” considered a short story while the other two are novels (or novellas)? The answer is plot depth. “The Old Man and the Sea” is a not a complex story and is narrowly focused. It doesn’t have subplots, and it’s about just one character. The Time machine and Animal Farm, not that much longer, are much more complex stories with multiple characters. The Harry Potter novels, despite their wide range of word count (the longest being 3 times the length of the first one) are novels because of the complexity and the number of subplots running through the entire series.
Depth and complexity of the story and what’s needed to tell it is more the determiner of a story’s classification than is length, although that’s not an absolute rule. The Science Fiction Writers of America have set forth rigid classifications for their story award categories that many have taken as absolute, when in fact they are somewhat arbitrary.
Here’s an article that deals with the SFWA word count categories.
The difference in classifications lies more in the depth of the story rather than on strict word count. Novels will typically have more character development and subplots and story complications. Novellas are simply short novels and have less story complexity. Short stories generally are restricted to one main plot, sometimes a minor subplot or two, depending on length, and a handful of characters at most.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the question asked “How long should a short story be?” The somewhat facetious answer is “However long it needs to be to tell the story effectively.”
Short story length “requirements” are often based more on what a magazine publisher will accept. Some won’t take anything over 2000 words. Others will go to 10,000 words or more. As much as the story lengths from SFWA have been publicized and quoted over the years, their classification limits are not accepted by everyone.
If you can tell a complete story in 100 words, that’s fine. Nowadays pieces under 500 or 1000 words are usually called flash fiction, but even those limits are far from universal. Some define flash as 100-500 words. Other terms are used to describe pieces of particular lengths:
A drabble is exactly 100 words
Twitter fiction is 140 words or fewer
And there’s micro fiction (some say that’s 300 words or fewer, and some say 100 words or fewer)
Now that I’d talked about the length categories, let’s take a closer look at what determines how long a story needs to be.
The primary factor is how many words are necessary to tell the story effectively without it being wordy or repetitive or confusing (from too few words). Your job as a writer—your ONLY job—is to tell the story that needs to be told, irrespective of word count or how it will be classified. PLEASE don’t butcher a perfectly good 5000 word-story down to 2000 words just because the magazine you want to send it to has that as their limit. Send them a different story, one that fits into 2000 words, and send your excellent 5000-word story elsewhere.
But what do you do if the particular market has a limit of 2000 words and yours isn’t a lot over, say 2500? Cutting 500 words may not seem like too much, although it’s 20% of the word count. But what if it’s 3000 words? Cutting a third of it to make it 2000 words is pretty drastic. One thing you have to consider is not so much the percentage being cut but the size of the story to start with.
It’s usually easier to cut a 400-page novel to 300 pages (25%) because you can probably find a lot of fluff throughout, maybe even whole scenes or subplots that could be eliminated. But you’d be surprised how much can get cut over a whole novel just by revising and tightening sentences along the way. In a 2000-word short story, cutting 25% (500 words) is likely going to be much more difficult since you don’t have subplots and extra scenes to remove. You’re truly dealing at the word level, not at the story level.
Before you attempt a drastic revision of a story (and in the absence of any specific guidance from an editor or reader), it’s essential that you look at all aspects of it. If the word count is only a little over, you may be able to tighten by revising sentences and cutting unnecessary words or by finding a single word to replace an expression. Here are five sentences reduced in word count with the word counts shown in parentheses.
He quickly got to his feet. === He abruptly stood. (6/3)
She held a gift in her hand. === She held a gift. (7/4)
The creation of the world was accomplished in seven days. === The world was created in seven days. (10/7)
She cried her eyes out. === She bawled. (5/2)
And my favorite: He shrugged his shoulders. === He shrugged. (because “shrug” refers to moving the shoulders.) (4/2)
In these five sentences together, the total word count among them went from 32 to 18, close to half. It’s not going to be possible to cut every sentence like this, but it’s where you start when the amount to need to cut is fairly small. Make the writing stronger by saying the same thing in fewer words. You can find many lists online of more compact ways to say things. Here’s the one I handed out that you can download.
Use such lists carefully because not every suggestion may be in the best interest of the story. Use good judgment. Sometimes a wordier variation is precisely what the story requires. In the end, only you can decide the best wording for the situation.
Even if you have a novel or a story where you don’t need to cut anything, reducing wordiness of your sentences will often make the story stronger. Just be careful not to go overboard.
After you’ve done that step (or if you know that won’t suffice), look at the story as a whole for repetition of information, dialogue exchanges that aren’t necessary, or scenes or details that don’t add anything significant. In longer works, you may need to repeat something that you haven’t mentioned for many pages. On the other hand, if you need to repeat it, perhaps you didn’t stress it properly the first time. In properly crafted short stories, repetition should be unnecessary most of the time.
Do we need to know what kind of clothing the character is wearing if it isn’t important or says nothing about the character? This applies particularly to minor characters. Descriptions should not be there purely for the sake of description.
Descriptions are often big wasters of words. While short, tight ones are often better, a drawn-out one may set a better mood or voice. Still, when word count truly matters, minimal is usually the better course. Descriptions slow or stop the forward momentum. Unless that’s your intent, keep your descriptions tight, and don’t over-describe if it doesn’t add to the story. A good rule to follow is to use no more than two or three well-chosen bits of description. When I need to write a description, I put myself in the POV character’s head and filter that description through the character’s personality. I ask what would strike the character immediately upon seeing that person or place.
When you walk into someone’s house, a place you’ve never been before, what do you notice first? When you see a new person, what strikes you about that person? When it’s a person you know, what stands out immediately (and this depends on how recently you’ve seen the person): clothing? Hair different? New eye glasses? As I said, the character’s personality and background will influence the perception. A straight male character will see other men and women differently from how a gay male sees them. A college professor views people and places differently from how a playboy would. A neat-freak will view a messy room differently from how one less fussy would, and so forth.
If there’s any rule regarding descriptions, it is this: Describe based on your character’s perceptions, not on how you as a writer want to describe it.
Next, look at your dialogue (if your story has any) to be sure it’s tight and contains no meaningless banter or what we call “on the nose” writing, a term more often heard in a screenplay context, which is basically “telling” instead of showing. In this kind of dialogue, characters may be (1) telling each other what they or others in the scene already know, (2) characters doing a Q & A, or (3) characters telling their own backstory. In real life people don’t talk like this, so your characters shouldn’t either. Also remember that in real life people don’t call each other by name constantly while speaking. I’m not saying you can’t do these things in certain circumstances when they’re a legitimate part of the story. Here’s an example of “on the nose” writing:
“Gee, Pete, we’re going to enjoy this movie.”
“Yes, Tom, I think we will. You told me it’s up for a boatload of Oscars.”
“Yes I did.”
For more information on this type of dialogue, search “on the nose writing” in the Internet and you’ll find some amusing examples.
Good dialogue doesn’t copy real-life conversations but is pared down to the essentials. A good rule of good dialogue is that every line should advance the story or characterize the speaker, and the best dialogue does both. If your story is dialogue poor, that may be an indication of a weak story more focused on telling than showing.
A word of caution on showing versus telling: Showing generally takes more words than telling. You want to show as much as possible, but don’t be afraid to use a sentence or two of telling if what you’re showing isn’t all that important. Learn when telling is the better route. SHOW the main story elements; TELL what’s necessary for the reader to know but not important enough to waste words showing it. Balancing these can be a good way to tighten a story.
Dialogue tags are often another place where you can trim. Look at your tags and ask whether it’s clear who the speaker is without it. Do you need the tag? And keep your tags terse when you do need them. The PRIMARY purpose of a dialogue tag is to indicate who is speaking. If you feel the need to indicate how the line is delivered, then you probably haven’t crafted the dialogue and the lines around it properly. Wisely chosen punctuation may be able to assist here. For example, an ellipsis will tell the reader that the speaker pauses or trails off, instead of using a tag to say that the speaker paused.
Check out this example:
>>> “From the day I met you, Edith, you’ve been insufferable and done nothing but boss, push, and demand that everything be done your way,” John told her as he stormed into the room with that look on his face that she knew meant he was angry.
>>> “How dare you talk to me like that,” Edith screamed back at him.
That’s 59 words and half of those can go bye-bye. Let’s see what we can do about it:
>>> John stormed into the room, red-faced. “From the day I met you, Edith, you’ve been insufferable! Boss, push, demand everything be done your way!”
>>> “How dare you!”
That’s 27 words and much more powerful. We don’t even need the dialogue tags for either speaker because we’ve already identified them. Plus, saying that John stormed into the room AS he told her is just plain awkward writing.
Speaking of “as,” you should generally avoid writing that someone speaks “as” he or she is doing something unless the actions are truly simultaneous. Most of the time we misuse “as” to refer to an action that already took place or that could not possibly happen while someone is talking: “he said as he took a sip of his coffee” or “he said as he put a forkful of food into his mouth.”
>>> “Honey, I’m home,” he said as he unlocked the door.
This is an improbable circumstance. He needs to unlock and open the door first, then deliver the line.
In general, “as” clauses like these make for weak writing. It’s usually better to show the logical sequence:
>>> He unlocked the door and stepped inside. “Honey, I’m home.”
That’s good, but this one isn’t:
>>> “Take that!” she said as she punched him in the nose.
Better to write:
>>> She punched him in the nose. “Take that!”
Or how about one with TWO “as” clauses with only a sentence separating them:
>>> The group were talking as Ray entered the room. “Where’s Ray?” Martin said, with his back to Ray so he didn’t see him enter. “I’m here,” Ray said as he joined the group.
I’ve seen cases of two “as” clauses in back-to-back as well as in the same sentence.
Strive to eliminate as many of these clauses as possible and replace them with stronger sentences. You can’t—and shouldn’t—eliminate them all, but use them sparingly and only when the alternative would lead to a more awkward sentence.
As a general rule, if you need to use an “as” clause, it’s usually better to start the sentence with it than to put it at the end, something I call “writing in afterthoughts,” because many times it feels as if the writer added that “as” clause as an afterthought to the action.
Most of the time rearranging such sentences won’t reduce the word count, but it will yield smoother sentences.
>>> The demon managed to dodge every one of his sword swings as Sir Quentin attempted to slay it. [WEAK]
>>> As Sir Quentin attempted to slay the demon, it managed to dodge every one of his sword swings. [STRONGER] (better sequence)
>>> The beasts bared their fangs, growling as they approached him. [AWKWARD]
>>> Growling as they approached him, the beasts bared their fangs. [BETTER]
Also remember this at all times: Don’t let your quest to reduce your word count result in weaker or more awkward writing. Effective writing must be your priority over cutting words.
So, what do you do if you’ve trimmed as much as you possibly can and your desired word count is still significantly over?
First, examine the story to determine whether everything is essential and adds to the story. The shorter the story, the more work each sentence has to do. Make sure each one is strong and essential to the story.
However, be very careful when cutting major sections of a story or when cutting a lot of small things. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve seen ruined by overzealous cutting or by cutting the wrong things. The story still needs to make sense to the reader, and it needs to flow smoothly. Don’t be anxious to cry out “Look what I did!” when in fact the story has become so tight and so terse that it’s no longer enjoyable because the reader has to do too much work to understand it.
Second, and VERY important, is that you be sure that you can tell the story well in the number of words you’re limited to. I get stories all the time that what’s there is good, but that need more setup or background so the reader can understand the character’s motivation. Make sure the story is a COMPLETE story, not a scene or vignette or feels as if it’s part of a larger story. If it does, it’s not a proper short story.
I’m not talking about a short story that is complete but so good that someone says, “That would make a great novel.” That’s a compliment to the writer, who has crafted a story so good and so memorable that readers want more of it.
I’ve had writers submit a short story that’s part of a novel. Why writers do this, I’m not sure. Perhaps they’re anxious to get something published while working on the longer piece and figure that they can just extract a short story from it. This rarely works. Most of the time there’s too much missing from the story. It’s extremely difficult to take a piece of a novel and make it work as a complete short story, not without significant changes.
The lesson here is that novels and short stories are very different beasts with different requirements. You can’t turn one into the other by simple lengthening or shortening. You must understand the form and requirements of each.
As a side note, consider poetry. While poems have many formats and styles, you can’t turn a short story into a poem by merely adding line breaks and rhyming words (if you’re going for rhyming poetry). At the same time, you can’t turn a poem into a short story by removing line breaks and forming it into paragraphs. I’m sure some poetry experts will disagree (possibly violently), but I contend that if you CAN simply rearrange a poem into sentences and paragraphs and have it read the same, then it wasn’t a proper poem to begin with. Just my opinion, though.
(1) Before you write the story, make sure the concept is right for the length of form you’ve chosen for it. Don’t try to fit something grandiose into a short story size. Know when to go big, and if you’re going for a novel, make sure the concept IS big enough to fill a novel without needing to be padded. If you set out to write a novel and discover that the concept is too large for one, be sure that the successive novels in the series won’t run out of steam. In other words, know when to quit and start something new.
(2) If you’ve already written the story and need to trim it to fit a particular market’s size requirements, be sure it’s feasible to do so while still retaining the heart of the original. Ask yourself what would be the minimum length in which you could successfully tell it, as a complete story, with the caveats that it flow smoothly and make sense.
(3) When trimming a story to fit, look at everything, large and small. If your word count isn’t seriously over, you can probably fit it by tightening sentences, eliminating unnecessary or redundant words or sentences, and substituting a single word or shorter phrase for a longer phrase. Also look at your dialogue to see if that can be tightened or if some tags can be shortened or removed.