Lately, I’ve heard quite a bit of discussion about the different lengths of fiction, and the relative difficulty of each. So, let’s begin today with what the varying lengths of fiction are. There is a lot of disagreement on where the border lines between forms are, so keep in mind that the numbers I am using do not necessarily reflect the definitions of any editor or publication, but are rather generalizations. With that disclaimer, here we go.
>200,000 words Russian Novel
120,000 to 199,000 words Epic Novel
50,000 to 120,000 words Novel
30,000 to 50,000 words Novella
12,000 to 15,000 words Long Short Story
2,000 to 10,000 words Short Story
1,000 to 2,000 words Brief Short Story
Under 1,000 words Flash Fiction
About 500 words Short Short Story
100 words Drabble
50 Words Dribble
140 Characters Twitterature
There are a few even shorter forms including the 15-word story and the 6-word story. We’ll talk more about these at the end of this blog.
Notice that the term Flash Fiction is inclusive of several other definitions, which are sub-categories of Flash Fiction, and which all fall under 1,000 words.
I’ve heard writers with multiple published novels say that they simply can’t write short stories. Others have made the attempt, and find it incredibly hard. The consensus seems to be, that the shorter the piece, the more difficult it is to write.
Some writers, don’t want to attempt something as difficult as short fiction, until they are comfortable with their skills, and have established themselves in the longer forms. Just as many, myself included, see the short story and its shorter cousins to be a means to hone their craft, develop skills, and establish a following prior to attempting a longer work; a sort of apprenticeship.
For myself, I find that most of my writing falls in the low end of the standard short story around 2,500 to 3,000 words. I write some shorter and some longer, but that is where my average story falls. Although my longest work to date is about 75,000 words, it is a horribly rambling and somewhat disjointed piece, which has never made it past the first draft. I keep promising myself to get back to it and I believe that I will eventually.
I attribute this rambling largely, to the fact that I am a pantser. I write with no outline, and relatively little advanced planning. Plotters, on the other hand, will have their entire novel outlined with volumes of character sketches, plot lines, sub-plots, character arcs, et cetera, before they ever begin to write. They are far more organized than I.
So, why do so many accomplished writers have such a hard time with shorter pieces? I believe that it is a combination of two factors. The first is word choice. The shorter the piece being written, the more important it is to cut the non-essential words, and to make each word that you keep serve a function. Each word must be essential to building your character or moving your story forward.
For a novelist, this can be a very difficult task. They are accustomed to working in little bits and pieces such as backstory, motivation, setting, et cetera. They may be a writer of fantasy, used to creating and populating entire worlds and cultures, creating economies and religions which must be explained to the reader as they go along, inserting a bit of information here and there, so that the reader understands how this world works, who is allied with whom, which races and lands have traditional enemies, and so forth. There is little room in a short story to accomplish all that, and much of it is unnecessary.
The second factor which makes short fiction so difficult for some is focus. The short story is not the proper means to tell the tale of poor farm families from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma being displaced and their struggles to move west and make a new life for themselves in the farming communities of California.
One could, however, tell the tale of a single couple struggling in those immigrant camps to find medicine for an infant, and the sacrifices they make to do so. Here, the story is narrowed down to just a few characters with a single conflict to resolve.
If you are writing flash fiction, it needs to be distilled even more. Perhaps you could tell the simple story of a wife who barely has enough to eat and her struggle to find a way to buy a gift for her husband. Here your story had been focused down to two or three characters and a simplified quest.
Maybe you are writing micro-fiction. Now you have only six words to tell your story. You might come up with something like a rather famous one attributed to Hemingway. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never Worn.”
For writers accustomed to the sweeping drama with underlying themes, complex characters, and subtle sub-plots, it is no wonder that the short story or flash fiction present a real challenge. It is, however, something which will improve their writing by forcing them to focus and to make their every word count. It will result in tighter, richer writing even in their longer works.
I promised early in this piece that there would be more about micro fiction. Here it is. I recently submitted several pieces to Haunted Waters Press for their Penny Fiction section. The requirements were to write stories of exactly fifteen words. Although my entries were eventually rejected, I believe they are worth looking at to see what can be done with so few words. You can find them in the Musings and Writings section of my website at www.dennisdotywebsite.com. While you are there, check out some of my other writing and maybe some back issues of my blog. Thanks for stopping by.
#writing, #fiction, #writingadvice, #shortfiction