How Long Should a Story Be?

How long should a story be? As long as it needs to be.

I could end the blog right there. That pretty much says it all. But, you’d still be wondering what on earth that means? Is it okay for a story to be told in a single sentence? Should it fill one page? Two pages? Is twenty-nine too many?

Don’t agonize over length. Each story will dictate its own length as you write. Some may run on for many pages, and others may fit in a single paragraph, like this one:
My most embarrassing moment came the year after I graduated from college. I had studied German for two years, and thought I knew a few words. But one evening I attended bridge club, and the the hostess’s mother-in-law was visiting from Austria. She had helped Ossie prepare elegant pastries for dessert. I wanted to tell the woman how much I enjoyed the treats, but she didn’t speak a word of English. Calling upon my best German I said, "Das kuchen sind sehr gut." (The cakes are very good.) She looked at me, shook her head and said, "No speak English." I blushed and tried again, more slowly, with the same result. She looked so embarrassed, and I was horrified that she didn't even recognize that I was speaking her language! Believe me, that was the last time I ever tried speaking German!
This entire story is complete within the single paragraph. It tells who was involved (Ossie's mother-in-law and me), when (a year after graduation) and where it happened
(Ossie's house), what happened (I gave up speaking German), and why (I feared further humiliation). It has a theme (embarrassment), a beginning (introduces the topic of embarrassment), a middle (describes an embarrassing moment), and an end (embarrassment put a stop to my further use of German).

Very short stories like this one are generally referred to as anecdotes or vignettes and incorporated into larger stories, but they can stand on their own. Write them and file them away. If you find further use for them later, that’s great. If you don’t, someday somebody will find that story and read it with a smile and gratitude.

Write now: about an embarrassing moment of your own, letting the story dictate its own length.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal


TH Meeks said...

A friend of mine asked recently, "How do you know when a story is done?" I told him, "You don't know. You decide." I think writers are like many artists - sometimes we have a hard time declaring it complete.

And thank you for recommending that people keep their smaller, less-easily-categorized work. I find that sometimes people get so caught up in labeling their work that they have a hard time just accepting it, regardless of its form.

Linda Austin said...

I wrote my mother's memoir of her life in Japan pretty much as a series of these little vignettes, one leading into another, interspersed with history and culture. It turned out wonderful, these little anecdotes and vignettes capture such beautiful personal detail that make people smile and bond with the author. Save them and share them!


PS I'd like to link to your site on my own blog as we are related!

Herm said...

Yesterday I saw an old girlfriend of my buddy in the checkout line at Staples. I sent him an Email to say I saw Sue (Not her real name) at the store. It had been many years. I decided to tell him the story of seeing Sue at the store. Instead of two sentences I used two small paragraphs. He wrote back to thank me for the mini drama. Little out-takes from life can be Paprika in print.

Rob said...

For me, a story is at an end when I have an almost overwhelming feeling of excitement and completeness and, usually, I leap out of my chair and punch the air!

I also do this after noting down some story idea in my story ideas journal which goes everywhere with me.

By the way, it nearly scares my wife half to death when I celebrate a really great story idea in the high street.

QuoinMonkey said...

Great post. I think a lot of the flash writing comes from the power of less. BTW, Happy Thanksgiving, Sharon! Hope your Holiday was a good one.

Tara said...

I antagonized over this a great deal when I was compiling my book. Great advice!

Read your recent book and loved every page of it!