This may seem like a silly question. How long is a piece of string, right? And the simple answer is:
ideally, a story is as long as it needs to be, and no longer.
There are norms that have developed over time, and which are more or less inculcated into us due to our exposure to stories in their typical media. Back in the 1970s or 80s a music album contained a total of about 40 minutes of sound, because that is as much as would fit on a long-playing vinyl 33 rpm record, approximately 20 minutes on either side. With the advent of the CD, suddenly musicians felt the artistic need to create albums that were twice as long.
You’d think that stories wouldn’t be subject to such constraints because the carrier media for stories are more flexible. However, when it comes to moving pictures at least, what is typically considered a fair attention span to expect the audience to tolerate does seem prone to popular beliefs by industry players in the respective markets. For example, a typical feature length film is roughly two hours long. This is practical because cinemas can comfortably manage two screenings an evening. If the film is good enough, it could of course easily be longer, but at some point viewers become restless and need an intermission.
A typical two hour-ish movie has between forty and sixty scenes. Formatted according to industry standards, a screenplay has approximately as many pages as the finished movie would have minutes. In terms of plot events, some people in Hollywood believe that a commercial movie should have exactly forty (which in Beemgee’s plot outlining tool would mean exactly 40 event cards).
Content and form may be mutually determined, to some degree at least. A short story is usually considered such if it has less than 10.000 words. By dint of its length, a short story probably concentrates on one character’s dealing with one specific issue or occurrence, and is unlikely to have subplots or multiplots (that is, be about more than one protagonist).
Short stories are great practice for writers cutting their teeth. Our friends at the self-publishingschool have gathered 11 Easy Steps for Satisfying Stories.
A piece of written prose fiction between 10.000 and 50.000 words is often considered a ‘novella’. This is a sort of hybrid between the short story and the novel. The narrative of a novella is likely to cover more ground – that is, relate a longer and more complex set of events – than a short story simply because it is longer than a short story. But to state that a novella perforce has more depth or more action than a short story would be a meaningless generalization. What is likely is that the focus in a longer narrative such as a novella is on a string of occurrences (or chain of events, i.e. causally linked events) rather than the story revolving around the meaning and effects of a single occurrence.
By this set of definitions, a novel is any prose fiction longer than 50.000 words. That kind of length allows development of a complex interaction of occurrences and ideas, for instance by including subplots showing the stories of several characters. Even a really long novel may be imbued with a sense of unity by a theme or small set of themes.
Outlining a work before writing it will give the author an idea of what form is suitable for the material. But an outline needs to be kept in sync with the development of the story that takes place during the writing process. Henry James planned The Ambassadors to have about 100.000 words in ten parts divided into two chapters each – he ended up with over 160.000 words in twelve parts with a total of 36 chapters. That was, in the end, how long The Ambassadors needed to be in order to get the entire story across.
Meaning and subtext arise from story structure as much as from the way the story is told. The emotional reaction of the reader or audience to the characters and their plight – i.e. to the story – is ultimately the most effective carrier for meaning. So perhaps the most interesting or important rule of thumb is this: Any scenes, events, characters, chapters or even words that are extraneous to the story – i.e. that do not help it move along by conveying more plot or relevant details about characters or their environment – are probably better removed. If it doesn’t mean anything, get rid of it. Whatever is there, the audience will try to ascribe meaning to it.
So, so long as each minute of screen time or each page is carrying meaning and the audience isn’t getting restless, the story isn’t necessarily too long. But in the interests of pacing, you may still need to kill some darlings.
And as to how long it takes to ‘finish’ a story, well, that is another question entirely.
Header image by André Zeugner
Related function in the Beemgee story development tool:
Develop your story: