[process] On predicting story length

asked in comments here:

Do you generally have an idea of how long something will be when you start writing it?

It’s an interesting question. The answer, to some degree, is related to the concept of “span of control” which I’ve previously discussed on a number of occasions. That is to say, in my admittedly subjective experience every story has a natural size.

That natural size arises from a number of factors, and can be deliberately distorted for reasons of muse or craft, but I think it always underlies the text. Some of this has to do with the structure of the idea. So, for example, consider the following:

Flash fiction up to 1,000 words Typically deals with a single aspect of character, setting or plot, highly economical prose
Short story 1,000 to 7,500 words One or two point of view characters, moderately realized setting, a single plot arc, tight prose
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words Detailed or multiple point of view characters, detailed or multiple settings, more than one plot arc, tight prose
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words Detailed or multiple point of view characters, detailed or multiple settings, multiple complex plot arcs, expansive prose

These are at best rough approximations the story lengths and their characterizations, but they do express a sense of natural size — in other words, the general richness and complexity of the idea going in gives me pretty significant hints about how long the story (or novel) will be.

For what it’s worth, I also find there are “golden lengths” for certain types of stories. I have no idea if this is broadly true, but it seems to apply in much of my own work.

Short story 4,000 to 6,000 words
Novelette 10,000 to 12,000 words
Novella 18,000 to 22,000 words

Note that I frequently violate the above considerations of length and complexity, even in my own work. For example, my SFnal short story “The Cleansing Fire of God“, a 4,500 word alternate history space race with heavy religious and political overtones, was described by my first readers as an entire novel jammed into very few words. The story completely overruns the above matrix. It’s dense.

Contrast that with “The Sky that Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black“, another SFnal short story which at 4,200 words is about man sitting in a room with a paintbrush in his hand. There’s very little character development, only two pieces of action in the whole plot, and the story hinges on a simple decision. Structurally, this one could have been written as flash. Yet it’s one of my most popular and successful short stories. And the story falls short of the above matrix by most measures.

Another way I think about story sizing is market requirement. If I’m asked to submit a 4,000 word short story, my first draft will typically be 3,800 to 4,200 words long. That’s a span of control effect (per my comment at the head of the post), and definitely a learned behavior on my part. But it’s very useful, as it ensures I’m doing the right work for the right market, without wasting effort or undershooting.

And sometimes I’m just flat wrong. I’ve occasionally embarked on short stories and written novellas. Likewise, I was rather notably wrong on the first draft of Endurance, which fell almost 30% shorter than I expected it to, missing that initial mark by 40,000 words.

The tension here is between muse and craft. That’s a dynamic tension, not a destructive one. Almost all consistent commercial writers (and I very much include myself in this category) have achieved a pattern of craft that grants considerable conscious control over the writing process. The muse drives the idea and the voice that make that process come alive and become engaging. Sometimes the muse gets out of its cage and rampages across the page. Those are often the most difficult and interesting stories, but also the most unpredictable.

The arc of my career has been the slow fusion of muse and craft. One of the best signifiers of this is my ability to (usually) predict the length of a piece of fiction just as I start writing it.

Your thoughts?

ETA: Important note. As with all my analyses of process and the craft of writing, this is post-facto. When I’m approaching a text in initial draft, it’s just words on a page. None of this sort of thing is consciously in my head, at least not after an initial decision as to what sort of piece I’m writing — ie, flash, novelette, novel. I very strongly believe it to be a mistake to overplan work before the words hit the page. This thinking can be very useful on revision, or for contemplation of the writing process as a general rule, but for me at least, it poisons the draft to self-consciously write.

4 thoughts on “[process] On predicting story length

  1. Michelle says:

    My span of control is currently maxed out at novella length, and I’ve had significant structure problems when I have tried to write any thing longer. Before I learned more about my span, I would start a piece expecting it to be a novel, and end up with a novella. I found it easier to go down than to go up. Now that I have had more practice with short stories and flash fiction, I am better able to predict and control my word count. Still, I am currently working on a piece that I thought was only going to be a short story, but is instead going to be about 11,000 words. I guessed wrong because I did not realize that it is really two stories intertwined. The main story by itself is only 6,000 words. Still learning. Still planning to work “up” to a novel some day.

    1. Jay says:

      Note that early in my career, before my span of control extended, I found it possible to write beyond that point. It was just a lot more work, and took a lot of self-conscious addressing of process which made the whole effort quite different from writing inside my span of control.

  2. I’m still working to hit that short story sweet spot. My short stories tend to turn into novelettes. I’ve found that if I can focus on the classic four part short story structure I can hit that target. So I do have to consciously think about structure as I plan and write the story.

  3. Cora says:

    I have never been very good at predicting story length. There have been many times where I started writing what I thought would be a short story only for the text to decide that it wanted to be a novella or novellettes that wanted to be novels.

    I also tend to write naturally long with a span of control of 15000 words and up. Hence, I ended up with several difficult to market novellas and eventually turned towards novels altogether.

    I think the reason why I tend to write long is that I’m a naturally plotty writer and plot requires space. Even my poems tend to have plots, which confused the heck out of my creative writing teacher.

    The piece I wrote for your flash fiction contest is actually the first flash piece I’ve written in years (not including poetry). And the first draft ran about 200 words longer than the finished version I posted here.

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