How Long Should a Story Be?

“How long should a story be?”

I’ve never taught a beginning lifestory class without having this question arise. I’ve never found an improvement on the classic answer:

“As long as it takes to tell the whole story.”

For an powerful example of how large a slice of life can be packed into 282 words, click over to the essay blogger Maureen M entered in TupperWare’s Chain of Confidence contest. This poignant tribute to her mother covers a lot of ground. It includes all basic elements of a complete story (who, what, when, where, why, plus plenty of suspense and tension) and I guarantee you will not anticipate the surprise ending.

Maureen’s story is focused with laser-like precision, cutting directly to the point. There is enough content between those two dozen lines to fill at least a page for each word, but you may not understand the core story as well if it did.

Whether you are writing a single vignette story or a book-length manuscript, be clear on your purpose and let the story tell you how long it needs to be.

Write now: a laser-focused short story of 500 words or less about some significant influence on your life. Write fast; write tight; write real. And double-check for all the basic story elements.


Linda Joy Myers said...

Hi Sharon,
I agree that the writer needs to cover all the basic orienting points as soon as possible, setting up who, what, where, and when. And then something else happens, we enter the dream of the world just described and in doing that we connect deeply with the writer. We see a bit of ourselves in the story, we learn something new.
Thank you for the good ideas here! And for putting my book in the stack above!

ybonesy said...

I've been submitting one of my short stories to various literary journals, both for contests and just for consideration to be published. Many of the magazines have a word or page limit. For a short story I am for about 6000 words, sometimes less. But that's not a hard requirement. I've written longer, but usually when I get to the business of editing it, I can pare it down for the better.