Does your story need more, or less?

Charles Yallowitz has a great post today. His topic is extremely powerful characters and their use of restraint. I recommend reading it for his topic, and the comments that went along with it. Here's the link, Legends of Windemere.

Charles' post got me thinking about the wonderful character struggle this creates. Then I started relating it to my own recent efforts. This post was inspired by Charles, but is going to be a different topic.

Most of you know that I've been writing short stories. Last Spring, I worked on a novel and some short stories at the same time. Charles' wonderful layers will enhance a novel, and in his case a whole series.

A novel needs this kind of conflict. The main character struggles with more than just defeating evil. Things gnaw at his soul. When the only power you have is a nuclear bomb, it's challenging to deal with a termite invasion. This makes for some good internal tension.

I'm free writing this tonight, but this must be my point: novels need more, and we're not talking about more words. They needs more story.

I fell in love with short stories years ago, but they almost disappeared. Today, they're coming back in a big way. They usually involve someone with a problem either overcoming it or succumbing to it – in a hurry.

I've made this mistake myself, so I get to talk about it. (I've read a few too.) We get a great idea, and find out our story is concluding at about 50,000 words. The first thought, after blind panic, is to add more words. This is how we get novels that describe every course of a drawn out meal. It's how we get tons of description. It's how we make our story boring.

Charles beefs up his characters. (Never a bad idea.) His character has an internal problem. He has to worry that he's not keeping up with his companions, or he's risking them when he could exercise more power. This adds more than words to a story.

Novels need a bit more complication. Maybe you need more than one hurdle to overcome. Maybe there is a competing hero, but he isn't a bad guy.

I've never had a series length idea. That doesn't mean I can't learn from a series type writer. What is needed is more story. Short stories might be about trimming to the essentials, or sticking to one plot element. Longer works need more plot elements, possibly more characters, and more complications. They don't need another dessert course after supper.

Story lengths are just extra tools in the writer's toolbox. Self publishing made them viable tools once more. If your story won't carry a whole novel, maybe it makes a better novella. If you really want a novel, add more story, not more fluff. If you have a cool idea that just won't come together, try it as a short story or even a micro fiction. In today's world you might find a market for almost anything.

I think Jim Butcher is a master of this. His Dresden Files involve Harry solving multiple disasters. The basic idea is: What's better than one major villain? Two major villains. (Plus a pending natural disaster, and an angry love interest.)

The last Dresden novel I read involved no less than four pending disasters. In some cases winning in one corner involved failing in another. Then, of course, there are always a few things screwed up in Harry's personal life. Still, he manages to bring about some measure of success.

I'm free writing this tonight, so I'm rambling a bit. If you work with me a little, there are some points.

  • Story lengths are not detriments. They are tools to use when we need them.
  • Longer works need more story. This isn't about extra characters or more situations. It is about more complications, emotions, and twists.

What do you guys think? Am I on to something here, or am I off my rocker? Maybe it's both and my Life story makes a better novel.

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37 Comments

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37 responses to “Does your story need more, or less?

  1. I think this is along the vein of subplots. A couple subplots in addition to the main plot can add more story. And oftentimes, these subplots can be weaved into the main plot so they elevate the overall tension.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. Makes me realize how novels will use multiple subplots alongside the main plot or there being more than one ‘main’ hero. One thing I began wondering as I read this is why we obsess so much about word counts. It may sound like a strange statement, but if the self-publishing boom allows works of every length to be published then maybe authors shouldn’t worry so much about length. Write the story in the way that feels right and forget the length. If it turns out a short story then that’s what it was meant to be. Then again, I might just be getting more laid back and meh in my old age.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think we’re getting there myself. Our Twitter obsessed era seems more interested in short reads. We may still have to bundle up a bunch of micro fiction before we sell it, but there is a market for it.

      You saw my recent stuff. It reminds me of the movies from decades ago. We used to get a serial, a cartoon, and previews along with the movie. That may be the way to approach readers of the future. Some prefer the cartoon.

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      • That does make it tough for novels. I’ve met a lot of people who see even a 200 page novel and complain that it ‘looks too big’. Makes me wonder if reading comprehension is a dying art. Good point on some people preferring the cartoon too. I just hope they still want the bigger stuff at times.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m with you on all of this. I’m afraid of losing reading comprehension too. I think there is room for everything, for now.

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      • I’m reluctant to read a full-length novel by an author I’m not familiar with. (I’m a little more adventurous with audiobooks, as I have so much more listening than reading time). I don’t want to go through hundreds of pages to find out the author can’t write an ending. So, if an author brings me a short story, I’ll often say “OK” when I’d say “I don’t have time” to a novel.

        I often go through long series from a few “trusted” authors. Or, if I’m looking for a new author, I’ll ask a couple of friends with similar tastes. I’d like to check out more multi-author anthologies of short stories, but I’ve had bad luck with my last few.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s perfectly fair. Everyone gets to like what they like. I agree with the short story test drive too. I’ve done it a few times myself.

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    • We need to know word counts, to help readers choose, because page counts can be easily manipulated, and advertising blurbs are unreliable. It’s worrisome that so many people seem content with reading only short stuff, but it works both ways. Without a published word count, I’d be very disappointed to buy what a blurb made to sound like a full-length novel, only to open the box to find a short story pamphlet or a novelette booklet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can see that, but word counts can be padded too. Personally, I prefer page counts as a reader because I can figure out the length of time needed. Word counts always look huge to me, but I know many of those words could also be ‘the’, ‘and’, etc. I guess if an author/publisher wants to trick a reader they’ll find a way with either system.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s happened to my wife. She was pretty upset. I expect more when I pay more. At 99 cents, I’d probably not be as concerned.

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  3. I think word count is a hangover from trad pub days. No one cares any more. It’s irrelevant. It’s only a tool and a guide to help writers during the actual writing and editing process.

    Sub plots – essential. They stop a story from being over simplistic and too one track. But save them for a longer work, not a short story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh and btw, loving the funghi!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In the traditional world word counts matter. A lot. Perhaps not to readers, but definitely to agents and editors. Though I wouldn’t want to wade through a 600 page novel unless Stephen King wrote it, and let’s face it most of us are NOT Stephen King. Sorry, I was responding to other comments. As far as your post, yes, I agree with you. For serialized novels we need more plot, subplot, and the like. No filler! Unless, you do what I and a lot of other crime writers do and use the same characters and locations and with each novel there’s a new crime to solve. Bam. Done.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent response to Charles’ blog. (I follow him, too.)

    When I sit down to write something short and it turns out to be more than 10,000 words, then I know it really needs to be the first three chapters of a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it depends on the story… sometimes more story is a good thing, sometimes just beefing up characters is preferable to add to the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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