24 Nov 2015

The Length of a Story

Hail readers!

Previously, I wrote on matters of writing; specifically, that concerning how much detail is too much detail—especially in sex. To continue from my literary deliberations, today I address another oft-troublesome aspect of writing: length.

Writers often feel anxious about the length of a book: will I write enough, the more inexperienced among them wonder; what if I write too much, think others. Both, you may notice, assume there is particular set length to a story—but is this true?

In a manner of speaking, yes. A sweet romance tale is best when told with strictly the detail and length required to capture the lover’s heart; no more and no less. A sweeping epic fantasy novel, on the other hand, or a thought-provoking scifi masterpiece—they need length. Length is part of their charm. They wouldn’t be what they are were it not for all those dialogues on philosophy (what is knowledge? What is moral? etc.) or on science, or on the architecture of the world—a particular favourite of ours.

But so too is there a degree of… flexibility, in length. Perhaps the epic fantasy novel may choose to employ language in a manner befitting of 18th century writers—as is indeed traditional. Or, perhaps it may not. Maybe the scifi masterpiece could do with missing a particularly technical discussion on the means of propulsion of the spacecraft. And maybe that romance novel might need a bit more side-character development or plot.

So how does one determine a suitable length? To answer that, one must go back to the key principles of writing.

The Key Principles

All tales are unique, but I believe certain key principles are universal among them all. These are:

  1. The struggle. A significant philosophical discussion can be had here; but as far as we, the writers, are concerned: a tale must have a struggle. It could be the protagonists finding what lies in their heart, and the struggle to find love. It could be a struggle to defeat a disturbed but immensely powerful necromancer. (Did anyone mention the Necromancer?) Or it could be a struggle for life—a struggle to reach the spaceship that will bring you to salvation.
  2. The fight. How do the protagonists find love? How is the Necromancer vanquished? (Not telling!)
  3. Resolution and aftermath. If the duo (or trio?) do find love… what happens after? If the Necromancer is indeed vanquished… what will become of his apprentice? And so on.
  4. Life etc. What happens in the meanwhile? And why, oh why, is it important? It could be to bring depth to the characters; it could be to elucidate on the finer details of a world. Or it could be there simply because… stories are like that.

Now, the above is probably incomplete. And addressing even these basic principles would require an entire book devoted to the subject—such is the complexity of writing.

But for our purposes, let’s consider these principles specifically with regards to length.

How Long is Too Long?

Without doubt, the first three principles make up the core of a tale; you cannot remove those. You can shorten them, perhaps, or re-write them—but you cannot remove them.

Number four, on the other hand, is where the grey truly lies. Number four makes up the bulk of a story; why? Well—because it’s lengthy by its very nature, and important in the workings of the tale. But: it can be cut down.

However, this is not to say that one ought necessarily do so. My scenes in the Necromancer that pertain to, for example, the workings of the mage schools; or, in the Ark, the scenes relating to the protagonists’ education and life more generally—these are important in developing the world and the characters.

Still, let’s be honest: it’s not as if the exact reasons for why fireballs break up beyond ~500m or why certain bullets are only used rarely make up some key idea.

No. The question that a writer must ultimately ask themselves is rather: how far do these scenes serve the first, second and third principles? For these scenes do, in fact, possess a peculiar derivative quality. In some ways, principle four is an extension meant to serve the other three.

Language

A final concern lies with language. Even beyond a large number of subplots or backstory, the workings of language can extend or contract a book’s length to great degree. Consider:

The city known as Trebon by those who inhabit its boundaries, or as Trabean-bennevont by those that made its ten foot thick walls by a hundred feet high, is majestic indeed. The Elves known as the Druiadath had named it ‘the Forest of Stone and Blood’—and as for why, well: that is no trouble for any man with half a sight to see.

For a thousand years the city had stood firm. A thousand by thousand soldiers had dashed themselves against its walls; all had perished. It is said that in the city’s catacombs their bodies lie entombed, for purposes that only the city’s necromancers know; it is said, also, that in the city king’s throne is made from the bones of some terrible beast, summoned centuries past.

The Black Beast of Denar—if it is indeed that beast which the legends speak of—had torn ten cities and a hundred towns to pieces. It had turned thousands of soldiers to bloody ribbons; but even it could not flout that impregnable gate.

But the force that rules it now had broken the gate. That feat had been performed by Selein, the city’s new ruler. He had used nought but his own power.

They say the sky went dark as raven’s wings; they say that some strange phantasmagoria had stolen into the city’s domain; they speak of dead men that walked, of mothers turning against their babes, and of a strange blackness that cut through the Great Gate as if it were no more than string.

They say Selein opened the gates of Hell.

The above is large enough to occupy a page; and yet Trebon could have been described in perhaps half that, had I truly been willing. Indeed, some writers can take the above—which is merely very detailed and verbose—and turn it into three pages, by festooning it with flosculations and asides.

And to some degree, fantasy works on that. It likes it when you describe the world with many names, according to many people, and through the ages of history. It loves legend (e.g. the Black Beast). And it also likes this kind of detailed description—of ‘dead men that walked, of mothers turning against their babes,’ and so on.

But the kind of writing above would be less appropriate for a thriller or a romance. And, even in fantasy, things can be taken to their extreme:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Then Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

—J.R.R Tolkien, the Silmarillion.

The above is certainly beautiful, but Tolkien takes so many pages to say what may take but paragraphs that, truth be told, the Silmarillion was only published because it was written by Tolkien.

To Conclude

Ultimately, the length of a book—or, should I say, the ideal length of a book—depends on genre and on the tale’s personality. Some fantasy works, such as for example the Hobbit, are quite fond of the embellishments of writing and the details of the imagination; others, like—say—Prince of Thorns, are rather less verbose.

To really address the question of length, one needs two things. Firstly, one must understand one’s creation. And secondly: one must consider how far the language, or the fourth principle, actually contribute to the three key principles.

Anyway: I believe I have addressed this question as far as it is possible for it to be addressed. I shall be back with more news on the Ark—which has thus far accrued 200 pages—and will also write on a topic of current affairs.

Until then: may the stars be with you…

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