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Story Length-Does it Matter?

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Say hello to the first guest blogger of 2019, Barbara Plum whose post takes us back to our school days…

Remember those dreaded high-school English themes? Did your teacher, when asked about length, compare the assignment to a skirt?

“Long enough to cover the subject. Short enough to be interesting.”

Say what? How does this pithy advice help writers understand the right length for titles? For sentences, paragraphs, chapters? For an entire book?

Do you know about six-word stories (often attributed to Hemingway)? Have you ever read—or tried to read—Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses by James Joyce? Which do you find more interesting? Can six words cover a whole story? Do Molly’s 3,000-words-plus monologue leave you gobsmacked?

The unamended US Constitution contains 4,543 words. With signatures. The Declaration of Independence comes in at 1,458. According to Slate News and Politics, “major [Congressional] spending bills frequently run more than 1,000 pages.”

Twitter, TV, cell phones, email, blogs, copywriting, FB and other social media platforms disdain length. Their motto could well be: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Ironically, Shakespeare portrayed Polonius as bombastic and vain. But Polonius loved his own witty voice.

Twitter limits tweets to about 32 modern English words. The “ideal” length for business email is between 50-125 words. (So says Hubspot, October 2018). One to six words can empower the subject line.

Lengths of novels push both ends of the spectrum. How can a writer develop rules of thumb? Here’s a partial overview I nailed down.

Interruptions fill our fast-paced lifestyles. A one-hour TV show averages about seventeen minutes of commercials.

Reader comprehension drops after 14 words (in less time if a topic is scientific, mathematical, or abstract).

Genres, in general, have different book-length conventions across categories. Sci-Fi, Horror, Historical and literary fiction can exceed 100,000 words. Page count for crime, mysteries, and thrillers depends on sub-genres.

Titles once had to fit on the spine of a book. Not much different today. Fiction rarely has a subtitle. A series probably increases the number of words in the title.

Synopses and tag lines distill the 40K-240K words in a novel. Synopses trace the plot. Tag lines refine the story to its essence. Think: The TV Guide’s bare-bones rundowns. Both synopses and tag lines take lots of practice—and hours of revising to capture the tone and uniqueness of a book.

Considering the above points, I’ve developed these guidelines for the right length for genre fiction:

  1. Think 10 words max per sentence. 3-5 sentences max per paragraph. 5-7 pages per chapter. Keep dialogue to 5-6 words. No soliloquies. 1-word paragraphs grab the reader’s interest.
  2. Vary sentence length to focus reader attention.
  3. Develop a rhythm. Rhythm helps break up longer and shorter sentences.
  4. Get a handle on a novel’s structure to manage total word count. (Beginning, 2 Middles, Ending work for me).
  5. Five-words max for titles seem a good fit in today’s market.
  6. Synopses run from one page to x pages. Tag lines max out at 25 words.
    • 17-word example for my newest paranormal romance, True Magic: “A common human with witch-killing DNA falls hard for The Uncrowned King of Right-Thinking Witches and Warlocks.”

In conclusion, no right length in fiction exists for everyone. We have to create our own rules. How about you? Have you figured out a few rules of thumb?

I like this quote by Hemingway as an overarching idea: “Prose is architecture. It is not interior design.”

****

Barbara Plum writes short, light Paranormal Romance with no vamps, weres, ghouls, or undead. No blood. No guts. No explicit language.

AB Plum writes long, dark Psychological Thrillers about psychopaths who meld into daily lives. Murder and tough language—never gratuitous—play integral parts in the stories.

Her light and dark side lives and writes and plays in the shadow of Google in Silicon Valley. She hates cell phones and loves Stephen Colbert. Her books are available on Amazon.

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