The Length of Things

lengthOne of the greatest freedoms we have as writers is determining the length of our article/story/book/novel.

Screenwriting has constraints. Generally, it’s accepted that one page will equal one minute of screen time. This might vary at times (a page might be less or more) but generally evens out. Years ago, it was accepted that your average feature screenplay would be about 120 pages – about two hours. Now, it’s been trimmed down to 100 pages. An episodic drama might be about 45–60 pages (45–60 minutes) and broken into four or five acts. A sitcom might be about 25 pages, have a teaser (the bit they play before the opening credits), three acts, and then the tag (the bit at the end the credits is played over).

Outside of the general three-act structure, prose isn’t necessarily so regimented. Your short story might be 500 words, it might be 5,000 words. Your memoir or self-help book might be 15,000 words, or might be 100,000 words. Your novel could be 30,000 words or could be 130,000 words. Unless you’re writing to a specific market (e.g. a competition, journal, or publisher) which stipulates the word limit, you seemingly have no constraints.

In fact, many may consider it exhilarating to have no constraints. A novel could entertain a litany of characters, span generations, and follow numerous subplots. That memoir could incorporate your life from day one to your ninetieth year. That self-help book could employ every example from your own life experience that you think valid to get your message across. Often, there’s no challenge to finish within a set limit, so why should we? Why not write a sprawling epic? Or a fat, cushy short story? Or an exhaustive self-help book?

Certainly, you could. Any form of writing should be exactly as long as it needs to be – no more, no less. But – outside of getting your first draft down on the page – that’s not an invitation to write forever. And, when it comes time to submit or publish, length is definitely something you need to start considering.

Let’s say you’ve written a romance novel and it’s 250,000 words long. How many romance novels of that size exist on the market? Probably not many. Readers are programmed to an expectation they want met when they pick up a book, and giving them something 3–4 times the length of your average romance novel is probably just going to overwhelm them, if not discourage them. You might argue this is the sort of length you like reading. Great. But that isn’t the standard. It’d be the equivalent of an eight-hour movie.

I’m also a big believer that every revision of your writing should get shorter, yet more packed. Waffling is common in early drafts, e.g. describing a sunrise over a farmstead might take two hundred words in an early draft, but be diluted – and yet done far more emphatically – to half that in revision. That plot point might take a page in an early draft, yet be concentrated to a paragraph in rewriting. Also, repetition is common. When you’re in Chapter 15, you might not remember that you’ve mentioned such and such already in Chapter 3.

Pacing is something else that’s important. Chapter 4 might rollick along, while Chapter 8 might bog down into languorous details that, whilst gorgeous, are unnecessary. Are those details needed? This is important to consider: if you can cut something, and it hasn’t hurt whatever you’re writing – as in the reader won’t even realise something’s missing – then it doesn’t belong there, regardless how much you love it or are proud of it.

Just because you have this boundless playground doesn’t mean you should be boundless yourself. Don’t ever believe that you’re so brilliant that your story will wow readers, hook them, and keep them engaged, regardless – regardless of length, regardless of repetition, regardless of any convention you might care to flout. This is an attitude a lot of inexperienced writers enjoy. That’s not to say you can’t break convention and be successful, but your choices need to be justified.

Be honest with yourself and your work. Examine what other people who are succeeding in your chosen market – whether it’s short story writing, prose, poetry, self-help, business, etc. – are doing. If they’re succeeding, it’s with good reason.

Whilst writing affords you tremendous liberties, they are not liberties you should abuse – particularly out of ego.

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