A story is the same length as a piece of string

Another Flash Fiction Friday goes by without a flash fiction from me. The Smurfs are still languishing on my hard drive. It being a humorous kind of piece, I have to be in the right frame of mind to write it and I’m not. These things happen.

I had another idea for a story today. I actually had it a while ago, but then it resurfaced today. Unfortunately, it’s too long for a flash fiction piece. It definitely needs more than 1000 words. Which made me think ‘how do I know that? How do we, as writers, know how long a story needs to be?’

I mean, it’s not the first time such a thought has occurred to me when having an idea. Several times over the last few months I’ve thought to myself things like, hmmm, that would be good for about 12-15k, or that would need around 25k. I remember, years ago, reading Death and The Maiden at university. The playwright had written an introduction saying that initially he tried to write it as a novel, but after a few abortive pages he realised it actually needed to be a play. How did he know that?

I’m not sure I can actually answer my own question. At the time, I thought, that’s ridiculous, how can you just decide something like that? Surely, if it could be a play, it could be a novel? Well, yes and no. Every short story must sit within a larger context, even micro-flash pieces, but for shorts that context can be provided by our own shared experiences as members of the human race living in a certain kind of society. A Kalahari tribesman would probably read them differently.

However, sometimes the story requires context that our society cannot provide. The issue with the story idea I had today was that it would require a certain amount of world-building, since it contains a fantasy element – talking books. If such things were part of our general life experience, I could make the story shorter, but as it is, I have to provide some background for the reader. There is a certain amount of confusion the main character has to go through to get their mind around the fact that suddenly books are talking to her, and I also have to set up the reason they start talking in the first place. All that takes words. And words are very expensive in flash fiction.

The length of a story, like anything else, is flexible. You should be as flexible with your story length as with anything else. And this works both ways. You may have written a 1000 word flash piece but then realised, on editing, that it reads a lot better in 500 words. On the other hand, you might start it as a short and realise it actually needs to be a novella, or a full-length novel. Don’t try and force your ideas into a framework which doesn’t work for them. If your story won’t fit into 1000 words, don’t squash it down. There’s editing and there’s eviscerating. Make sure you know the difference.

If you have a minute, please go to Allies and Enemies, episode #4 of The Elemental Races, and vote on what you think should happen next!


About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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2 Responses to A story is the same length as a piece of string

  1. Kimmydonn says:

    Don’t squash it down! I generally write on the sparse side. I’ll do a word count and go, “What do you mean that’s only 3490 words?! That was a 5K chapter at least!” or “Is 50K really enough for a novel?” I once wrote a story for a fanfiction contest. It was a rewrite of a scene from another character’s POV. So, I had a set period of time that I was retelling. Good. I had a word limit for the contest, 8K. No problem. It ended up being 12K. BIG PROBLEM. I was able to pare it down to 10K easily, but in that last 2K I literally broke it. It was sad. You can and should pare down. You should remove unnecessary verbage and make your flow better. You should not take a hacksaw to your story.

    Okay, I should not take a hacksaw to my story. I’m letting other people do that from now on.

    Opposite, also true. I’ve reread a piece and realized there was a missing scene and added that, but I have never (yet) decided that my 50K story needed to be 100K. I can’t even imagine trying bloat something like that. Trying to force scenes in, make them relavent and important, when you, the writer, already know you told the story without them. I wouldn’t care to try.

    Regarding Flash Fiction? I love it. I write one every week for my picture prompt blog and usually have at least one other for a contest or a blog prompt or some other reason. I adore taking a peek into some character’s life, jotting down that day or afternoon or conversation, and ducking out again. They can be such refreshing little snips. My picture prompt this week is a ballet recital and nearly too sweet to be consumed. http://picprompt.blogspot.com/2011/05/kimmydonn-week-50-what-little-girls-are.html

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