Musings on Story Concept & Length

28 Sep

You know, participating in Madison Woods‘ 100 word Flash Fiction challenges every week and checking out other people’s stories is teaching me several things.  For one it’s teaching me to appreciate how everyone has different strengths.  Some people are really good at creating twists even within the brief space the challenge permits.  Some people are really good at scaring you or creating eerie, creepy stories.  Some are good at communicating emotional truths that move you.

All of this is also helping me recognize things that don’t come naturally to me and require more work on my part.

Plotting

Plotting is not my favorite part of writing.  Figuring out what comes next and tying it all together so the story makes sense is hard, I think.  It’s different for a 100-word story than a 200K one, though.  The former doesn’t take much planning.  You just kind of have to figure it out as you write it, if you don’t see it from the get-go.  You can take that same approach with a longer story, but the longer it is I think the more difficult it’ll be in the end to make it all fit together.  (Not impossible, just difficult.)  Having somewhat of a plan, even if it’s a very sparse one, helps to keep you from wandering by giving you some goals to write towards along the way.

For the most part, though, I prefer to discover things as I write, so plot doesn’t come easy.  It’s more of a byproduct of my explorations, heh.

Another part of plotting I think is challenging is incorporating plot twists.  I don’t usually think about twists when I write, particularly in my flash stories, so if they do pop up, they aren’t likely to be earth-shattering revelations.  Also, it’s hard to know the power of a twist or really “see” it as a twist when you already know the outcome.  In my longer project I have a few, but it’s a mystery to me how well they work or not with the foreshadowing and whatnot ’cause I haven’t shown anyone else yet!  (Not all of it, anyway.)

All things to look forward to in the beta reader stage, I suppose.  This leads to something else I’m learning…

Story Length

Different concepts require different lengths which, in turn, require different ways of going about telling the story.  I feel like most of the flash story ideas I’ve come up with so far have fitted comfortably within the 100-word confines, though I have come across one or two that needed more room to breathe.  I suspect the more stories you write the better you’ll get at predicting how long it needs to be in order to tell it thoroughly.  I knew coming into my Element 7 project that it would be big; I just didn’t know how big at the time.  (The things you get yourself into…)

But larger stories are just a bunch of interconnected ideas presented with a recognizable beginning, middle and end so as to make sense on a whole.  You could deconstruct a longer story into several shorter ones, or you could take a shorter one and develop it into something longer.  (This may seem painfully obvious to others, but I’ve maintained a long-story mindset for so long that it’d never really occurred to me to try shorter stories until recently.)  Story concepts may be modified (shrunken or enlarged) to serve different purposes, though I still think each concept has an inherent story length it wants to be told in.  And perhaps writers have preferred lengths for writing, depending on the kinds of concepts they come up with.  Even after getting involved with these 100-word challenges, I still feel like my native story length is novel length.  That’s where I feel most at home.  I like having more room to explore the complexities of characters, cultures and unusual situations.

In any case, I am glad to be writing shorter stories.  As I’ve mentioned before in comments, it gets you thinking about how to say more with fewer words.  As I comb through my WIP during edits, I’m finding ways to cut out non-necessities (though somehow I often manage to add something even more important within the same length like it’s a trade-off) and condense certain blocks of description while maintaining the core ideas.  I’m not a master at that yet, but it is getting easier.  The end goal is to have every word count for something and contribute to the whole and also to fully realize the concept behind the story–no matter how many words this takes.

Yeah, so that’s what I’ve learned so far between working on 100-word shorts and the chihuahua killer, heh.

What aspects of storytelling are most challenging for you?

Also, do you seem to have an inherent story length, or do you pretty much like to write in all kinds of formats?

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19 Responses to “Musings on Story Concept & Length”

  1. Anthony Lee Collins September 28, 2011 at 10:18 AM #

    I seem fall into novel-length stories, as I talked about here:
    http://u-town.com/collins/?p=213. Even when I write shorter stories, they all link up to make a longer narrative. And even the “short stores” come in very different lengths The shortest is 6,000 words, the longest is 27,600, and the last two (which really make one big story) are 32,000 together. I’m mostly like you: I usually only have a hazy idea how long a story will be until I write it.

    Like

    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 8:57 AM #

      “Even when I set out to write shorter pieces, they end up connecting with each other in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.”

      I like when things come together naturally like that. Sounds like a sweet deal!

      Like

  2. Stephen A. Watkins September 28, 2011 at 10:57 AM #

    Writing to a prescribed length is definitely still my weakness. I’m slowly beginning to understand how long a story is actually going to be when I sit down to write it. Typically, I overshoot my target wordcount. But I seem to overshoot it within a certain range: suggesting that I can actually increase my target wordcount to somewhere in that range and I’ll actually hit the target. But my sample is small… and it’s impossible to say whether this cause-and-effect or not: am I expanding past my allotted wordcount at a subconscious level?

    I don’t know… I just know it’s a challenge for me.

    Like

    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 9:19 AM #

      I would think it’s normal to go over or under a target word count to some degree, especially with longer works. I’d think even publishers have reasonable tolerance levels when it comes to how long they want novels to be.

      Unless it’s for a competition or something–“exactly 140 characters…” That kind of thing.

      Though, maybe I’m just speculating now, heh.

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      • Stephen A. Watkins September 29, 2011 at 2:01 PM #

        Well, yeah, hitting an exact target isn’t reasonable to expect. I’m talking about big misses, though. As in Target = 6,000 words. Actual 1st Draft = 10,000 words (an 80% overage).

        Or Target = 1,000 words, actual = 2,000. And so on.

        Soon… I’ll hopefully have tested this math out at the novel-length. But that’s the kind of miss I’m seeing in my short fiction. I’m also hoping that actual novel-length overage doesn’t look like a near-100% miss.

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        • Stephen A. Watkins September 29, 2011 at 2:10 PM #

          Also… I should actually do the math before pretending to have done it. 6,000 words to 10,000 words is a 66% overage, not 80%.

          Still… it’s a big swing. (And the third draft on this particular example is now trending toward 12K… when I swear I thought I was going to be cutting material in the third.)

          Like

          • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

            LoL, it’s okay. My brain’s too tired to do math now anyway. 😛

            You know, I think I’m pretty much over caring whether I can cut my novel down right now. If after I start submitting I start to get feedback that certain sections would benefit from a cut, I’ll listen, but for now I just need to focus on making the story the best it can be.

            Out of curiosity, do your short stories have to be a certain length for competition or publication, or are you using arbitrary numbers?

            Like

          • Stephen A. Watkins September 30, 2011 at 11:39 AM #

            Well, that depends on the market. The competition I’m submitting to has an upper-limit of 17,000 words. But I’m not inclined to make full use of that. For one thing – stories that long are almost completely unmarketable outside of that particular contest.

            Most markets these days seem to have a top-side limit of around 8,000 words, give-or-take a couple thousand. One of the few markets I know of that takes all the way to novela-sized fiction (I’m not sure of the actual limit, but novela implies somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000) is the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – but that’s a notoriously difficult mag to get into. (Some successful and popular writers have tried and failed).

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  3. RNR September 28, 2011 at 11:07 AM #

    We’re complete opposites–I feel that plotting and short-stories are easier than longer works, hehe. I think it’s due to a fear of filler and mid-novel doldrums. I used to be able to plot while writing, but somewhere along the way I developed the “outline-obsession”. In-depth outlining can morph into an excuse to procrastinate. *le sigh*

    “Also, it’s hard to know the power of a twist or really “see” it as a twist when you already know the outcome.”

    That’s very true. Twists don’t seem spectacular when you make them. Feels like it’s been done before. It has–because the idea was running through your head over and over.

    “But larger stories are just a bunch of interconnected ideas presented with a recognizable beginning, middle and end so as to make sense on a whole. You could deconstruct a longer story into several shorter ones, or you could take a shorter one and develop it into something longer.”

    This was not obvious for me! It … makes sense! Methinks I will try this.

    Like

    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 9:35 AM #

      Ugh, mid-novel… By far the hardest part to get through.

      And I think just about anything can turn into an obsession if we let it! Seems like I develop a new one every so often, haha.

      Like

  4. deshipley September 28, 2011 at 1:11 PM #

    I think I’m starting to get a feel for how long a story will take to tell — comparatively, anyway. My “short stories” will usually fall in the 4K – 10K range. My “full-length” works may be anything from 25K – 40-some-K (on the shorter side, I know), although I plotted big enough to sail past the 60K mark once, and the current project (the sequel) may make it somewhere near there as well. And then there are the in-between babies that I dub “novellas”.

    Because I like being able to take a little more time over character development than super-short stories will allow, I’ve written very few of them — unless they’re extensions of a previously-written longer work, and even then it’s difficult to keep the word-count down. And those mid-novel doldrums described in an earlier comment? That can be tough, alright. Doesn’t seem to matter whether the final product is a shorter novel or a 60K whopper, there’s just something about a plot’s midway point that snags me almost every time.

    I hope to improve my short-story writing, in the near future. Even if I prefer longer or interconnected narratives, telling a complete standalone story briefly is a skill worth having, too. Will I ever try to tackle a project with words in the hundreds of thousands? It feels unlikely, at this point. I can’t think of a single story that would hold my interest for that kind of length of time. But who knows? – maybe my next zap of inspiration will demand 300K words to tell. It takes as long as it takes, right?

    As far as surprising plot twists, I barely have to look for them – they jump out and surprise me during my pre-writing brainstorming. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out a way to turn all the shocking twists into a cohesive story, which will often mean letting a few of the twists go. (Sure, it’d be great if X turned out to be G’s long-lost sister. …too bad it wouldn’t make a lick of sense.)

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    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 10:34 AM #

      I’m like you in wanting to delve more into character development. I find that exploring the interrelationships between the main cast requires space, for sure.

      That’s funny you feel that away about long stories like that ’cause I’m just the opposite. I’m not sure if I’ll ever really get into writing short stories at the lengths you do, but as they say, never say never! I’m sure it’d be nice to have that practice, though, at working with various lengths. They’re all sure to present their own unique challenges.

      Like

  5. T. S. Bazelli September 28, 2011 at 1:54 PM #

    The most challenging part of the process is the editing for me. Maybe it’s because I don’t have as much experience in it? Looking back at my old writing always makes me cringe, and it’s hard to get over that. It’s also hard to stay interested after you’ve read the story over and over again. It is necessary though!

    I find that plotting helps me gauge story length, but finishing the first novel was the biggest education. I think you can develop a sense for how long a story will be, after a while. I used to be horrible at flash, and now I know roughly how large of an idea will fit in 1000k. I’ve also discovered that I’m better at novel length 😉 Short stories are hard! It’s either one or the other for me: flash or the full meal deal.

    Like

    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 10:51 AM #

      You know what’s odd? I’ve yet to lose interest in my WIP, but the prospect of needing to clean up the manuscript and getting it up to par can be really exhausting. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is recalling why I fell in love with the characters, world, etc. in the first place. Then I look at a scene and wonder, does this do the original inspiration any justice? And when it doesn’t I know I’ve got work to do.

      I came across one such scene yesterday. The first half just wasn’t doing it for me (still isn’t, but I can only do my best and move on at this point), but the second half was pretty much already where I wanted it to be. A mixed bag. :/

      I never thought of looking at plotting as a means for gauging story length before. That makes sense, though–in retrospect, heh, since I’m not much of a plot-planner.

      Like

  6. Mark Andrew Edwards September 28, 2011 at 1:56 PM #

    My first novel had a problem with plot. The first draft was ‘just a bunch of stuff that happened’. I had to graft a spine onto it and it sort of worked.

    It was much better on my second, where I started with my ending first, then worked backwards to make sure I hit all the moments and made sure the characters changed to make that ending happen.

    Despite that, at least in my short fiction, my endings are not satisfying people. That’s what I’m trying to work on, now. The ending of a story is the last thing your reader ‘tastes’ from your story. So it’s important to get right. I hope I do, someday. 🙂

    I don’t know how you manage with a 100 word limit. I am not good at flash fiction and this ‘superflash’ fiction you do is a whole ‘nother skill.

    My short stories vary but they all end up being at least 2k words, on up to the 12k mark. (Which is an outlier, most end up 5~6k) My novels tend towards the long: 125k, 140k and 180k (which may need to get cut in half) Currently, I’m trying a terse, fast-paced novel which may land at 50k~75k for the first draft.

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    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 11:02 AM #

      That’s how my earliest experimental drafts were, just a bunch of stuff happening. Then I tried detailed outlining and resulted with something that was at least moving somewhere…but then it felt contrived. So I tried shifting the perspective the story was being told from and focused on character while writing with a loose plan in mind and that seemed to work out.

      The things we do to make a story work!

      And yes, endings are difficult for me, too. At least with my longer story, heh. Particularly the last words. How to bring closure without it sounding cheesy or silly…or stupid, heh.

      Like

  7. Tiyana September 28, 2011 at 10:14 PM #

    Hey, all! Thanks for the responses. I promise I’ll reply to everyone in the morning; I just got busy today, heh. 😀

    Like

  8. Madison Woods September 29, 2011 at 4:56 AM #

    After reading your blog, I realized a very strange thing. I’d always had trouble with falling short on words. My novel is about 30K too short, but in the rewrites I’m filling in a lot of detail which will bring it up to target. Short stories were always too short, too, though, ranging near 1500 words instead of a healthier 2500. But since I’ve started practicing the 100-word discipline on Fridays, I crank out 4000-8000 word short stories! Maybe because it’s helped me learn to focus? I have no idea, but I like it.

    Looking forward to rounds at this week’s #FridayFictioneers!

    Like

    • Tiyana September 29, 2011 at 11:16 AM #

      Maybe! That’s pretty cool how the 100-word stories seem to be helping you, though. If nothing else, I find these exercises are making me think more carefully about how I say things. (Unless for some reason I’m in a hurry to write something. Then it just comes out as it comes out, heh.)

      Like

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