By Raymond M. Coulombe
How long should a story be? One could say it should be as long as it needs to be, no longer or shorter. That’s adorable. More often than not, a story’s length is determined by factors that have nothing to do with the requirements of the story.
Take short stories for example. Publications have guidelines on how long a short story should be. They aren’t hard and fast word counts, but you’d better be somewhere in the ballpark. The form requires a certain length to even work as short story. In a full length novel a writer can meander along for quite some time, building the world, developing the plot, describing the scenes and all that. A short story writer has to squeeze all that into a much shorter format. It takes discipline to do it right. Enough information has to come across so the reader has a good idea what’s going on. If you are going into depth to describe some bit of scenery, that information better be essential to the story. Even well written sentences get cut to save space if they aren’t essential to the story.
How long should a novel be? The accepted length has varied a lot. In the past, one of the big factors was the price of paper. When paper was expensive, novels tended to be shorter. Sure, there’s some pressure from readers, but paper costs are a big deal. There are other considerations. Often publishers would rather pay an author for one 100,000 word book rather than for two 50,000 books.
Electronic books could really change the game. Text storage uses very little memory. With current download speeds it really doesn’t matter if there’s 50,000 words of text or 1,000,000. Compared to images or music, the file sizes are pretty small. Besides, storage gets cheaper all the time.
With digital books there is no physical reason not to make a story as long as you’d like. Media size is no longer a major issue. It could all come down to needs of the story and story teller. However, it’s possible that unlimited length will not improve story telling so much as to allow the author to be lazy. Instead of cutting to the chase, the author will meander all over hill and dale.
Of course, in the end, it’s the readers who ultimately decide. Bad story telling is bad story telling, no matter the length.