At a recent writers workshop I was surprised to hear repeatedly the question, ‘How do you know how long a piece should be?” and almost as equally surprised to hear the answer “You just find out as you are writing.”
Now, no doubt, the writers giving those answers were writers who are more experienced than I am, but when I asked them if they were a pantser or a plotter, every single person who gave the above answer replied ‘pantser.’
As a scientist, a nerd, and a dyed-in-the-wool, plotter, I would like to believe it is possible to put a little more structure around this and to outline a slightly different answer, and one that I do think will be useful even to pantsers. Which is important if you are trying to write for a specific purpose e.g. short story competitions almost always have word lengths. But first, let’s start off with a few definitions.
- Nano-fiction: usually < 100 words (sometimes exactly 55 words)
- Microfiction: < 250 words
- Flash Fiction: 250-1000 words
- Short Story: 1000- 7500 words
- Novelette: 7500-17500 words
- Novella 17500-40,000 words
- Middle Grade Novel 50-70,000
- YA Novel 70,000-80,000
- Novel 80-100,000
- SFF Novel 100-150,000
- Experienced SFF novelist with a following: 100-300,000 words
Note, these definitions are not carved in stone, and YA vs MG novel is not determined on word count alone. Individual magazines or competitions may define the word lengths for each category differently. These are therefore rough guidelines, but this is the reference framework I will be using in this blog. Most importantly, they give a sense of the relative lengths ie novellas are longer than novelettes. The general order does not seem to vary between definitions, even if the word counts do.
So now that we have some rough definitions, in order to decide what length of piece you should write, you must first ask yourself the question: what am I trying to do?
The reason for that is that I would contend that your length depends on several key factors. Or in nerd speak, we can make an equation:
Length ∝ Scope of your story = (# characters x amount of worldbuilding x depth of characters x time period for story)/familiarity
Most of this is self-explanataory but “time period of story” means, (length of time/time increments) so if your story is 1 minute in the real world but every scene is a microsecond this factor is longer than if your story is a week but time increments are days.
Familiarity is where you incorporate things from our own world or existing mythology so that we do not have to spend valuable words worldbuilding. e.g. if you write about a new world and you open with “Delphine exploded, sending debris raining on Feta below.” We have no context. Is Delphine an airplane, a spaceship, a building? Is Feta a spacestation, a person, or a lump of cheese? If we were instead to write “The moon exploded, sending debris raining on Earth below.” It might be a bad sentence with inaccurate and unnecessary words (Earth is not below the moon…) but we do know what is happening without explanation. If my story uses an analogy to Humpty Dumpty we know that character probably cannot be put back together. Or, depending on context, maybe they are fragile like an egg. But we have context which helps save words.
So, thinking about the above equation, obviously the less we have in familiarity, and the more we have in all the other categories, the longer the story needs to be. Conversely, if you want to write something short, you will find it easier if you lean into familiarity and cut all the other categories to their minimum.
But all stories must have some kind of arc, so we can’t eliminate everything. In order to have an arc in something under 100 words we usually have one character and we do not usually have time for a character arc so no depth, so it is usually a ‘surprise’ or twist that we are portraying eg someone (either the character themselves, or the reader) suddenly realizes the main characters is already dead, or that God doesn’t exist. It has to be something big that we intuitively understand is meaningful if there is going to be any point to it. We have no time for buildup. The story is the very moment of change. Often with fiction this short it helps if we can rely heavily on familiarity to even make such a story possible.
Does your story need multiple scenes, or a lot of dialogue? Then you are probably not writing nanofiction. Multiple scenes and dialogue are hard, if not impossible, in nanofiction which is really just the second before change and the moment after.
Microfiction and Flash-fiction have similar limitations but the breathing room those few extra words gives us allows us to consider two brief scenes, or a little dialogue. We do not have to use context and familiarity here, but it still helps. In microfiction, although we may switch scenes once, that’s probably about the limit, and we may have to choose between scene set-ups and dialogue. Remember, every choice you make to enlarge one of the factors, has a cost in what you can do in the other areas if you are staying in that length category. However, with these lengths we’re still probably only having a single POV character. If you want to stretch your wings into multiple POV, you will feel far more comfortable in the short story or longer formats.
Short stories are usually good for a single idea, a single event, or a single character’s inner change. What do I mean by the last of these? Well, I shall use the same example my English teacher used with me forty years ago – in the bible Jesus says to Peter, his closest disciple, that he will deny him and Peter stoutly denies that he ever will. Peter believes he is stronger and more devout than that. Jesus reasserts he will and that he will know that he has done it by the cock crowing. We are then shown Peter traveling. Eventually, he finds himself amongst people that he is afraid will kill him if he acknowledges he is one of Jesus’ disciples. He then denies Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times, and it is only when he hears the cock crow he realizes what he is doing. Peter learns something about himself. And, though we don’t find this out as that is where the story ends, hopefully this makes him a better person, more understanding of other people’s weaknesses too.
What about novelette vs novella vs novel vs doorstop? Again, it’s about what you need to cover.
If you are worldbuilding a complete new world with a cast of fifteen different point-of-view characters you are writing a doorstop of a novel. As you reduce the elements, you reduce the length you may need in order to tell your story. For a novelette, I would stick with a single POV character. Its not to say you can’t have more, but the more you use the less depth you have on each and the less your reader is going to understand or care about them. Bear in mind there are full-length novels told from a single perspective, and there are many reasons, other than just word length, to do that.
If you are writing about a world that needs worldbuilding, as is so often the case in fantasy and SciFi, and you are unable to use any familiar elements (eg Earth, but in the past, or in the near future) then the easiest thing to reduce is the #POV as you should be careful sacrificing character depth as doing that may make it hard for readers to engage and care about the characters.
So even if you are a pantser, whether you are dealing in a completely new world, or the present one, and whether you need one POV or forty, these are decisions you usually make as you start to write. I would contend therefore you have at least an idea of the range of possibilities in length for that story, and you can make some conscious decisions to guide it in the direction you want. I hope this is helpful! Let me know in the comments below if you liked it, or if you have another approach to solving this problem.