I’ve been thinking about the “right” length for a story. Obviously some stories seem like they’re too short, others too long, blah blah blah… but if a reader were to pick out their ideal length for a story, what would it be, and how has that desired length changed over the years?
There was a time when all stories were either fables and folk tales that were more often recited than written, or voluminous, deep and never-ending tomes about the lives of kings or the tribulations of the saints. Tales from a life-sized storyteller were easier to follow than reading a scrap of papyrus by the campfire, while heft made sense when you were expecting your audience to pay for inscription in a scroll or some type of hide-bound codex. The needs of your audience has always been a determining factor, whether your audience is your rich and powerful patron or the father of that ten-year-old girl you’re hoping to marry before she turns eleven and gets all old and wrinkly.
When the printing press came along, there started to be some short-short-short works, but they were mostly pamphlets about feeding your enemies’ rotting corpses to worms (paraphrasing Martin Luther, I think). They weren’t stories, for the most part. Stories were still either tales you told to anyone bored enough to listen, or hefty gold-flaked luxuries that you wouldn’t be able to finish in one trip to the chamberpot.
But eventually the printed stories got shorter, most likely because of the spread of magazines and newspapers, and we witnessed the golden age of the serial and later, the short story. There was this notion among most writers that the reader would want to read the story in one sitting, usually in a comfortable chair with a pipe or a Lucky Strike handy. In those days, people still thought of radio and television and swingers’ key parties as a once-in-a-while thing.
I blame Donna Reed for causing short stories to bleed out from the hip. TV was the new deal, and short stories were being read less and less. Reading fiction started to be something most people did once in a while, rather than being the go-to activity for people who’d never gone in for stickball or beating the Irish. Eventually reading was something you might consider doing if you had a book handy, or if you were stuck on the bus, or if your parents told you that there’d only be one hour of TV per night, and as long as you live under my roof…
Then the Internet came along and shoved a rusty blade into the glittering belly of television, and people started reading again, even if that reading consisted mostly of bulletin board arguments about Hitler and the occasional subscription plea on the freemium clown porn site. In time, some visionaries even declared that the short story would thrive once again, and every semi-pro writer with a love of the short form and a desire to never have any money ever, ever again launched their own online fiction magazine.
And here we are. Online magazines are buying short fiction, some for as high as a tenth of what you could get for the same length sixty years ago. That’s some serious penny bingo cash. Meanwhile, rebels and fools (I won’t say which label describes me) are throwing their short stories up on Amazon and Smashwords, hoping to earn some money for scotch and alimony and wondering how long it will be before people finish reading a three-thousand-word story and stop asking where they can find the rest of it.
It’s almost enough to depress a lonely writer with too many big ideas and not enough uppers.
But I have a theory, my friends, a way of making everything better.
I believe that the short story of the comfy armchair is being replaced by something similar, but different. I believe we are witnessing the rise of the novella.
Yes, that plucky little wannabe novel, always a few chapters short of a paperback, is a perfect vehicle for the new world of e-readers and smartphones. The reader loads it up on their device and reads it whenever they get the chance, carrying it in their pocket or purse, and hopefully not shoved up somewhere wrapped in two layers of plastic baggies in order to counteract the occasional cavity search.
Novella, and her cute and petite friend Novelette (I’m not sexist; they’re clearly girls) are standing by the wall at the school dance, fidgeting with their hair and chewing their gum, just waiting for any old awkward kid to limp over and ask if they want to slow-dance to whatever the 2012 version of Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses” happens to be.
Those novellas don’t have to be series, but Hugh Howey certainly makes a case for them with his dumptrucks full of Wool money. But they need to be long enough to engage readers whose only experience with short fiction was whatever they had to read in those high school textbooks about [...]
(I don’t know… I’m already falling asleep trying to remember what was in those textbooks. I remember the word “diversity” and lots of perms… then the room goes dark…)
I’m sure novels will remain the top-sellers for a while, but since it’s risky to spend two years writing and editing novel number one just to discover that nobody cares what would happen when a Tacoria on Mars hosts the Harlem Globetrotters for an Intergalactic Luau… you may want to try a few 30,000 worders on for size.
That’s my ingenious plan. Maybe. We’ll see how long the next few stories happen to be.
I’m not sure anyone can do 30,000 words on gnome sex. But if anyone can…