One thing that authors rarely think about when writing a piece of fiction is how long they want their story to be. That’s a mistake.
Now on the face of it, that seems off. After all, a story should be allowed to grow to its full extent, shouldn’t it? Rather than worry about your short story’s word count or spending a lot of time stressing about how many pages your novel is, shouldn’t you be doing everything you can to make sure that your story is as strong and interesting as you can make it?
Of course you should! That’s why you need to do everything you can to keep your story from being too long.
You see, part of being an author is loving what you write. If you didn’t love it, there’s no way you’d spend hours and hours slaving over it, after all. And part of loving something is the ever-present temptation to indulge it. To talk about it constantly. To let it do whatever it wants, not whatever is best for it. In short, you can overdo it.
Have you ever met one of those people who only talks about one thing? Their job, their kids, their blog, their six-years-and-running D&D campaign? If you have, you know that even if that subject interests you at first, there’s only so long you can sit and listen to it before it becomes boring. Now, depending on how interested you are in that subject and how interesting the person telling you about it is, it might take you a while to reach the point where you’ve had enough, and it will definitely influence how likely you are to come back for more, but the key point here is you don’t ever want to let a story run so long that readers loose interest. Ask yourself how long you would let the premise of your story keep you attention, then, if your story looks like it’s going to run longer, find parts of it to cut.
You have to be ruthless about this, because even when you’re doing your best to write with the most elegance and the least waste possible, you’re likely to find yourself running much longer than you expected to. Both Heat Wave and my previous writing project (which I may talk about more in the future) have run away from me with surprising speed. Heat Wave is shaping up to be about 10,000 words longer than I originally expected it to be, and I’ve only included about 80-90% of the material I had originally hoped to use.
Now that doesn’t mean I’m scrapping all that. I talked about nonlinear writing a while back and one of the things I’ve discovered the more you do that kind of thing the more willing it makes you to take material originally intended for one story and transplant it into another. You may wind up writing whole scenes that contain great ideas or fantastic dialog but aren’t directly related to what goes on in your story. Save them for another story with the same characters. Or even different characters.
Have background on your characters that the reader doesn’t need to know just yet? Hold on to it for a later story where it will immediately important. That will give it more impact, because your reader sees both actions in the past and their consequences in the present in the same story. That improves both your writing now, as it removes extraneous detail for you readers to keep track of, and gives you a leg up on future projects.
Finally, trimming all that extra stuff keeps you within the bounds of the Law of Conservation of Detail. We’re busy people, who only have so much time to keep track of things. Do your readers a favor and keep how much stuff they need to track to a minimum and they’ll love your writing for it. Your stories will be slimmer, trimmer and more memorable than if you just let them run all over the place, and the ideas you’ve had to cut will be glad to have more time and space to develop themselves more fully, too.
I know that this is a hard area for me to practice what I preach. I love the extra details, the hints at the bigger picture, the long running threads that only bear fruit with time. But sometimes serving your story’s best interests isn’t a whole lot of fun for you as an author.The results are well worth it, though.
P.S. – This is a link to a review of Under the Dome by Steven King, which illustrates what I’m talking about from the reader’s perspective. That review was posted after I wrote this post, and I didn’t want to try and kludge it in in some awkward way, so I’ve just appended it here.