Juuuust Right: Finding the Right Length for your Story

One of the things we rarely think about as writers is how long our stories should be. We know a novel should be long, and a short story should be short, and a novella should be somewhere in between.

How long is too long? How short is too short? How do we know when that literary Goldilocks will say, “This one is juuuuust right”?

As usual, it’s by trial and error. I know about the error part.

In 2006, I came across a contest wherein authors could rewrite a classic fairytale, recasting it in modern times. I’d been fascinated for years by “Sleeping Beauty,” so I immediately chose it.

I penned a dark tale wherein the titular character was put to sleep not by a jealous witch but by her overprotective father. Beth’s father Rex is obsessed with the idea of preventing his teenaged daughter from having sex, so he finds a spell to put her into a coma until she’s old enough for marriage.

In the story, Beth’s mother, Marie, battles to save her daughter, but she turns out to be just as sinister as Rex. I wanted my version to end on a disturbing note, giving the reader the sense that things were no better despite resolving the story’s central conflict.

The problem was this: I conceived a tale that was longer than the contest’s maximum length of 4,000 words. I wrote a 4,000 short story, but it wasn’t long enough to properly tell the tale I wanted to. I didn’t win (or even place in) the contest. At the time, I didn’t know why. (Nobody ever does in these sorts of things, of course.)

But this year, with my fledgling career as an independent author needing a boost, I was looking for material I’d already written to convert into something I could publish quickly to broaden my catalogue and expand my brand. I was in the process of writing the sequel to State of Grace, but I needed to put something else on my retail bookshelf in the interim.

E-readers have made short stories a viable medium for publishing again, so I went through my archives to find some stories I could clean up and publish. I thought “Sleeping Beauty” was an excellent choice and got to work on tuning it up.

But my editor kept asking questions about the characters. She wanted to know more. She wanted them to develop more. So I kept shaping and adding material.

In particular, we needed more about Marie and the Prince Charming character, Carl. to make Marie the sinister character I wanted her to be, we needed to see more of how she treated Beth before the coma. Earlier drafts only focused on her efforts to rescue Beth. Likewise, it was obvious Carl was sincere and in love, but we didn’t know much about him outside his “relationship” with Beth.

“Sleeping Beauty” feautres a number of flashback scenes to tell the story of how Beth came to be in the coma. Earlier drafts were all from Rex’s perspective. In the final version of the story, Marie gets some flashbacks too, and that helps build her character. We see what happened in the past not just from Rex’s perspective but also from Marie’s. We discover her parenting is every bit as misguided and detrimental as Rex’s, albeit in a different way.

With Carl, the key was to get him away from Beth. All of the scenes with Carl in the early drafts are at Beth’s house. In the final version, there are several that occur at school. Carl’s interaction with some of his classmates tells us more about who he is. He isn’t just a dopey, lovesick teenager. He’s a real person who knows when to stand up for what’s right.

The final draft of “Sleeping Beauty” is just over 8,000 words. It’s twice the length of its original version, but it’s still a short tale and a quick read — exactly what you want from a short story. It also has fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and that’s been reflected in a series of four-star reviews on Amazon.com.

“The characters were well described and sympathetic, each in their own way,” writes Mark Abrams.

Runninginheels notes, “Sleeping Beauty is an enjoyable short story with character development that defies its length.”

A story of any length needs to be satisfying. To make that possible it has to have fully developed characters and not go too long. You want to leave the reader feeling like he or she got something out of your tale. Finding that perfect length — the balance between too long and too short — is critical in winning over readers.

Hopefully, you’ll get yours right a little faster than I did mine.

“Sleeping Beauty” is available from Amazon.com for your Kindle here.

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