All stories have three things in common: they begin with a status quo, use a conflict to disrupt the status quo, and end when the character either restores the previous status quo, or creates a new one. Depending on the scope of a story, the entire narrative may take place over a few minutes, or a character’s lifetime; generally larger spans of time lead to longer stories.
For some writers length is an afterthought, but for others, including most publishing authors, length is critical. Most publishers will only consider stories that meet specific criteria, including genre and length. The two most common forms are short stories, under 7,500 words, which are published in anthologies, and novels, which are over 40,000 words.
Other lengths include novelettes, which are between 7,500 and 17,500, and novellas, which are between 17,500 and 40,000. Unfortunately most readers tend to prefer either very short, or very long stories, so these formats are less widely accepted by publishers.
Keeping Short Stories Short
Focus on a single protagonist, and a conflict that resolves in a few days. Other characters may wander in for a moment, but only 2-3 characters should repeatedly appear in the story, including the protagonist. Try starting each scene in the middle, close to the height of conflict, and leave the scene as soon as the conflict resolves. When introducing new characters, decide on 1 or 2 features that are critical to the story; whether it’s a character’s red cheeks and booming voice, sloppy clothes, or rough callused hands. A single detail can speak volumes.
Filling Out a Novel
Some authors say that novel chapters are really just a series of short stories, each between 2,000 and 6,000 words long, with most running 3,000-4000 words. Each chapter has its own conflict and resolution, which either resolves or complicates a piece of the overarching conflict of the story. The beginning and ending serve as transitions between each chapter.
A novel chapter may focus on a single character conflict, or explore multiple conflicts, but within a chapter each scene should share a common tone and theme, each scene should focus on a single conflict.
A novel may focus on a single protagonist or alternate between 2-4 protagonists, changing point of view between chapters. A character’s relationships create subplots and explore different ideas. For example; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix continues the ongoing conflict between Harry and Voldemort, but the story also explores issues of trust, romance, reputation, and rumor.
Revising for Length