In last week’s post about sorting fiction by length, I mentioned my (strong) feelings on brief fiction, and so this week is all about those (strong) feelings.
Warning: copious use of parentheses ahead; also, slight ranting.
There seems to be some sort of grading of stories by their length, and I’m not talking about sorting. I’m talking about an inflated sense of importance or significance or prestige or betterness (yes, I made that a word) based on a story’s wordcount.
It’s become a badge of sorts to write mammoth novels, as if the higher your wordcount is, the more fantastic of a writer you are. It’s some sort of milestone to reach 100,000 words in your novel or for your final word count to come to 120,000 words (or higher), and it’s almost like you haven’t arrived as a writer until you’ve hit the big 100k.
And if your novel’s only in the 60,000’s, well, I mean, that’s great and all, but… you know… it’s kind of short, and really, what story is worth only 64,000 words? And if it doesn’t even make it to 50k, well, um, is it even technically a novel? Isn’t that more of, like, a novella, and who even reads those?
Spoiler alert: it’s small-minded to think that a story is better because it’s longer. This post is for the people who are afraid their story’s too short, it’s for the people who think a short story isn’t worth their time, and it’s also for the people who think that you aren’t a certified writer/author until you’ve written a full fledged novel.
Writers, listen up and write this down: the. power. of. a. story. does. not. lie. in. its. length.
I’ll say it again because some people are thick-headed like me: the power of a story does not lie in its length (that’s a quote from a writer named Tara L. Masih, by the way).
A famous bit of micro-fiction (typically attributed to Ernest Hemingway) is only six words, and it tells quite a sorrowful story.
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
I bet you didn’t see that coming.
I read that story, and I get an image of this young couple who’ve been trying to have a baby for so long, and then they finally get pregnant, and the baby’s coming, and they get things all set up for a nursery and a little mobile over a crib in a room painted blue, and there’s all that excitement and love and anticipation, but when the baby comes, it’s stillborn. So they sell unworn shoes. What about you? What story rises up in your mind when you read those six words? What thoughts and feelings come to the surface when you see that handful of words?
Peeps, the power of a story does not lie in its length.
The power of a story lies in the emotions that it evokes, the memories it pulls out of the moldy corners of our minds, the old truths that it casts in a new light, the complacency that it challenges, the new ideas that it gives, and the old ideas it causes us to reexamine.
So go after that power, that heart.
Some stories need a hundred thousand words to tell them, maybe even five hundred thousand. I get that.
And some stories call for only six or six thousand or sixteen thousand or sixty thousand words, so don’t try to add to them. Don’t make them bloated in your quest for an awe-inspiring wordcount and don’t think less of yourself because you “only wrote a novella”. Before you start berating a story (yours or someone else’s) for being “only” 30,000 words, remember that the power of a story does not lie in its length.
There is so much brio in brevity, so much to be said for the writer who can take a snapshot of life with fire and few words, so much in the story that you can read in an hour and come away shaken, so much in that image painted with broad, deft keystrokes that comes to mind again and again.
My point is: don’t strive to write 80,000 words. Don’t even strive to write a novel. Strive to write a story, however brief or long, that is your absolute best, one that leaves a handprint on someone’s heart, one that glorifies God.
So it’s 231,000 words. That’s quite something.
So it’s 878 words. That’s quite something.
So it’s 43,000 words. That’s quite something.
And don’t just read stories that take days to consume. Read the ones that are only as long as your lunch break but take much longer to forget. Read the ones that only fill an hour but keep haunting your heart. Read the ones that demand only an afternoon to start and finish but leave a trail of new thought through your mind.
The small story can have just as much power as the big book. You are just as much a writer for that small story as you are for that big book. Even if you can never master writing short fiction and can only write winding epics, you are a writer. Even if you can never get to that 60k, 89k, 124k novel and have to be content with novellas and novelettes and flash fictions, you are a writer.
All else aside, just remember these two things: the power of a story doesn’t lie in its length, and whatever you do, do it with all your might and for the glory of God.