WRITING
Big Little Decisions
How Long Should Your Story Be?

I don’t care what anyone says: you can’t “turn a short story into a novel.” They are two utterly different creatures. 

Obviously, a novel’s plot will be longer and more complex, and there will likely be more characters. But just as important, the basic approach to the writing should be different, with a distinctive pacing and attention to character- and world-building.

Compare a helicopter’s launch with the take-off of a jumbo jet. Short of the fact that they both carry people through the air, their respective motions have little in common from the start. If you are drafting a short story that you decide really ought to be a novel, you may not be able to use a single complete sentence from your original story. 

Flash Fiction versus Short Story

Stories can get really tiny these days. Nanofic is under fifty words, and Twitterfic is far shorter. People who write on the micro end of the spectrum do so deliberately. It’s a special skill. Seriously, who comes up with a complete story idea and accidentally discovers it feels right at one hundred words?

It’s more common to face a decision about a piece close to 1,000 words. Below that, you’ve got flash. Significantly above it, a short story. Keeping a story hovering just above a thousand (assuming the story is not children’s lit, which has its own set of word-count guidelines) may make it tricky to sell. Almost always, the best idea is to cut, unless you can find a specific reason to expand. This might be the development of a character to make him more individual or the description of an action or scene that is not quite clear. What you don’t want to do is what I heard a newbie writer say recently when she needed her piece to be longer: “I’ll just make it wordier.” Oh, my, no. 

How Long a Short Is It?

Say you’ve figured out that you have a short story on your hands. How long should your short story be? I find that, at this level of decision-making, the most influential factor is the prescribed length in a particular submission call.

This process can go two ways: 1) I complete a long first draft and edit it down to size, or 2) I complete a way-too-long first draft and realize the story can’t be told within the limits of that particular publication.

In option 2, I must decide whether to start something else for that submission call. If my answer is yes, the too-long story gets placed in a folder called “in progress.” It’s a mighty big folder. Occasionally I even remember pull one of those stories out and use it for something else. 

Novel-ella-ette

Still, there is hope for the too-long short story. One result of the establishment of digital-only publishers – not to mention self-publishing authors − is the rise of the novella. Back in the days of print-only, a novella was considered a novel under 120 typeset pages, and a publisher took a financial risk producing a book of that size. Nowadays, a novella tends to be defined as anything longer than 10,000 words but less than 50,000 (with the exception of children’s novels, which can run shorter).

There is also a popular subset called novelette, commonly defined as 15,000 to 25,000 words. It’s fair to say that a novelette is a short story that just won’t stop. Once you pass 8000, you’re edging out of the short story realm, but the pacing still tends to be similar to that of a short story.

As to settling on novella versus novel, a big factor is subplot. Have you got one or more? If all you have is a single plot line with a bit of decoration, then novelette or novella might be the better choice than full-length novel. Or cut that sucker down to a short story. Ruthless self-editing is never out of style. 

Stand-Alone versus Series

Many novelists feel pressured to write a series of novels. It’s what readers and publishers often expect, especially in genre fiction. It’s not inherently a bad idea, but there are some issues to consider:

Did you plan it as a series, or are you making this decision late in the game? The former will make for a stronger series and cause far fewer headaches for you as you try to pull pre-existing story elements into a new plot.

Is there really more to tell, or are you faking it? Two of my favorite novels are Anthony Burgess’ Inside Mr. Enderby and its sequel, Enderby Outside. The second book is a perfect complement to the first, resolving the tension between the two main characters. Burgess thought he was done, but his publisher insisted on a third and fourth book because they would sell. Burgess was faking it, and The Clockwork Testament and Enderby’s Dark Lady are embarrassing shadows of their predecessors. 

Choices, Choices, Choices

Speaking of economically-based decisions, the fact is that the length you write is not always about what a particular story demands. Sometimes it’s about the needs of your career or your bank account. I would say that short fiction has two practical functions beyond artistic statement: getting your name out there and bringing in a little cash. Preferably, it does both.

I find that a good time to produce a lot of short works is when I’m putting the finishing touches on a long work. I like to draft a bunch of short things as I edit and revise a novel. It’s good for the brain and it keeps my name in front of editors and readers while the big meal cooks, so to speak. And the little injections of cash are welcome.

One of the best things about being a writer of fiction is that you get to make most of the decisions about what you write and how long it is. Then again, maybe that’s one of the worst things about it. Depends on the day. 


Anne E. Johnson has contributed several stories to Drunk Monkeys. Her dozens of published works range from 100 words (in SpeckLit) to 92,000 words (her humorous sci-fi novel Blue Diamond Delivery). She often writes for children, and her collection of 15 sci-fi and fantasy stories for kids, Things from Other Worlds, is available on Amazon and BN.com. You can learn more on her website