Choosing the Best Length for your Story

Hi all! Julie here, and today I want to talk about how we as writers choose the best length for the stories we tell.

As readers, we’ve all come to the end of a story we loved and felt a real sadness that it was over and we were going to have to leave those characters and their world behind. I think this can happen with any length of story. I’ve felt it at the end of short stories (Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” comes to mind,) and I’ve felt it at the end of multi-book series (Harry Potter, for one.) No matter how short or long the story, I know these characters I’ve come to care so much about live on. Why would the author so cruelly cut short my time with them?

We all know why, of course. A writer chooses to illuminate a certain portion of a character’s life (I know there are exceptions to this, but I think this is a safe generalization,) and the portion shown to the reader through the story is chosen with care. A story is about change, and knowing what change you intend to show is the first step in choosing the best length.

In “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver reveals a change in a character over the course of an evening. In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling reveals a change in Harry over years of his life, but those years are all important in revealing that change. (She also doesn’t show you every moment of those years, but carefully chooses the most important moments that serve the story.)  The arc of the character’s change has a lot of influence on the best length for the story.

Another experience we’ve probably all had (sadly) is the feeling that a story was stretched out beyond the length that would have served it best. Maybe the middle sagged, or you got the feeling that the writer was adding length to put off a “big reveal.” I think as readers, we want as much time with beloved characters as possible, but that time needs to reveal something–to add to the plot and build to the resolution.

So as writers, how do we make these determinations? I wish I had a simple, universal answer! For me, a big part of discovering the best length happens during the outlining process. (If you are a pantser and prefer not to outline, then maybe your first messy draft is the process that helps you make discoveries about length.) Outlining helps me to see the beginning, the end, and the major turning points. If I’m outlining a series, this also gives me the opportunity to look beyond the resolution of book one and plan how the characters’ arcs will continue on and expand over the remaining books.

To help find the best length for a multi-book story you’re writing, I suggest you read Jodi Meadows’s great post about how duologies differ from trilogies. Among other things, she discusses the series arc. You can also read this wonderful post by Susan Dennard on planning a series.

Sometimes, even when you’ve kept the best interests of the story in mind–you’ve planned all of your plot points and moments of character self-discovery, and you’ve charted the rising action–you still have to find the best length by trial and error. Which brings me to a personal example.

When I first planned out Ivory and Bone, I intended for it to be part of a duology. I had strong ideas for the two individual stories, the switch in narrator from Book One to Book Two, and how a two-book series would allow me to reveal a developed arc for both of the main characters. I was definitely writing a duology.

But my agent sold Ivory and Bone as part of a three-book deal, and the possibility of a trilogy arose. And I made a mistake, but one I hope you’ll forgive. Because I loved the characters and their world, I decided the duology I had planned could be made into a trilogy.

When I wrote the first draft of Obsidian and Stars, the sequel to Ivory and Bone, I “left room” for a third book. The mistake I made was that I didn’t truly change the story. I told myself I was letting the plot and the arcs expand, but I was fooling myself. Fortunately, my editor saw what was going wrong, and she advised me to tell the story as I had intended to tell it, without holding anything back. I followed this advice, and when the revision of Obsidian and Stars was finished, I realized that this story was always meant to be a duology. Two books was the length that best served the story and revealed the arcs.

So I’ve come back to my original plan. Ivory and Bone and Obsidian and Stars are a matched pair, and the third book of my contract (which I’m drafting now!) will be something completely different.

Was I sad to close Kol and Mya’s story? Definitely. Am I scared to be writing something completely new and different from my two published books? Yes, very. Do I think I made the right choice? Absolutely. I made the choice that best serves the story, and as writers, that should be our goal with every choice we make.

What are your thoughts on choosing the best length for your story? Please share your ideas in the comments!


4 Responses to Choosing the Best Length for your Story

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 31 2017 at 7:10 am #

    From my WIP:

    Her face fell into more somber lines. “It requires no great wit to see that all stories have natural end points. Wisdom is needed to recognize them, and not try to continue the story beyond its bounds, or draw it up short.”
    “We speak of lives, not of stories.”
    “They are the same.” Thump. Step. “Life without hope is a terrible thing.”

    Someone on Facebook asked the same question, should I try to turn my short story idea into a novel? To which most of us replied, that if the story wanted to be a novel it would say so. I grow most of my stories, and as a result most of them continue longer than I expected. Properly made characters will do that.
    On the other hand, I’ve had people say I should write more stories like, for example, Steampunk Santa, and I’ll look at them and go, “Huh?” Some stories end where they end, and trying to keep them going is like raising the dead. We’ve seen lots of TV shows and movie franchises like that. Terrible things.

    • Julie Mar 31 2017 at 12:03 pm #

      Thanks for this great comment, especially the quote from your WIP! So appropriate. 🙂
      I agree that sometimes characters add to the story the writer had in mind–a great character will reveal himself/herself and make sure we as writers pay attention. But stories that go beyond their natural stopping points are indeed terrible things!

      • Marc Vun Kannon Mar 31 2017 at 1:45 pm #

        The woman speaking is a female avatar of Death. I read your post and thought of those lines immediately. I think about stuff like this, especially when the MC of the book is a storyteller.
        I’ve always felt that real characters transcend the stories they’re in, so you can have multi-genre stories all in the same book. One of the reasons I dislike the ‘characterization’ school of character creation. The story grows from him, we shouldn’t cut and paste to fit the story. (“International flavor’s missing…I know, let’s make him Greek Orthodox!”)
        It’s becoming all too common nowadays for business interests to try to suck the maximal possible value from a story, rather than go to the trouble of developing name recognition on another story and letting the first one die a natural death. When I finished my Chuck rewrite, I stopped where the show did, but for a different reason. My story was done, There was nothing more for me to say about the guy, so any further stories would have just been more-of-the-same adventures, no character growth involved.
        BTW, your description of your own series as a duology-plus-one reminded me strongly of the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold. The first book ended very nicely, the second book picked up with a secondary character from the first, and the third was set hundreds of years before either.

        • Julie Mar 31 2017 at 2:24 pm #

          How cool is this character you are writing? I love storyteller MCs, but a female avatar of Death is the clincher. 😉

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