Yes, size does matter.
When I began working as a news producer many years ago I quickly learned that story size matters. Every day and for every newscast I had to make the decision of whether a story would receive 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or if it could go up to a minute or two minutes long. When you are producing a program lasting only 30 minutes and up to 10 minutes could go for commercials that didn’t leave much time. You also had no choice but to hit that exact ending time because you either had the network newscast or a network late show directly following. Those shows never started a second late so you either got cut off or we missed a commercial. Missing commercials cost the station money so that wasn’t an option. Miss enough commercials and you were sent back to the writing pool. But even working as a news writer meant hitting an exact time because the producer was telling you how long your story had to run. If you didn’t write to that time limit the producer, news manager or anchor might edit it down for you. Again, not exactly a good option.
But as important as the time element was, that was not what determined the length of the story. The content did. Some stories were not worth two minutes. Some stories could be told in fifteen or thirty seconds. Some required longer times and meant turning them into a series or some ended up as a full-fledged documentary. The determining factor for the size of each story was the story itself and as a producer I had to make that critical decision every day.
In fiction, size = words.
I carried that knowledge over to my fiction writing but learning that also took some time. When you’re writing fiction, you’re not dealing with time, but with word count. When I first began writing novels they seemed to drag on and on. I still have several in boxes in the basement that are thousand page monstrosities, and I was convinced when I wrote them that they needed to be that long. They needed every little nuance or the reader wouldn’t get the gist of the story.
Well, no. As I learned from some very gifted news editors, stories could always be cut down. The secret was to learn how to determine what was needed to get point of the story across and what could be cut because it was extraneous material.
How do you know the right length for a story?
What I also learned as a news producer was that not every story subject was worth two minutes. Some could only run fifteen seconds and get their point across. As a fiction writer and writing teacher, I have also learned that not all stories need to be a full-length novel. Some are so involved that they might need to be turned into a family saga. Some might introduce characters who need a story of their own. But some stories don’t require a full-length novel to get the point across. Like those fifteen second stories I used to find, some stories are meant to be short. Some can run for only five thousand or ten thousand words and make their point very nicely.
Often I see writers who come up with a story idea and don’t think it will work for a full-length novel. Well, there is no need to toss those ideas or even consider saving them until just the right character comes along or a book might need a secondary plot so you can use the story idea.
Try it now as a short story. If you have a character who might have a simple problem and you would love to see that character in a story, why not place him or her in a short story for now? You can always write the full-length novel later. Or perhaps you will discover that the short story gets you so involved with this character that you want to write his or her full story. You can always use that short story as a prequel to your novel.
Short has a place in your writing repertoire.
My point here is that short stories can be valuable. Writing short stories can be very useful to helping you develop as a writer too. As a beginning writer, I watched talented editors take my over long stories and cut them down to just the right size to get the point across. Later as a newsroom manager, I often had to do that job of taking a story that someone else had written and cutting it down so that it fit into the newscast but also got its point across. Writing and editing those stories to make them shorter also helped me hone my talents as a writer.
Coming up at the end of this month I will begin a class on writing short fiction and I hope you’ll join me. Writing short stories can be valuable in so many ways, not only in developing your writing skills but as a marketing tool as well. We’ll cover all that in class.
One thing I learned about short stories when I was producing those newscasts. When I started out I always kept a couple of extra short stories available. You could fill in extra time if someone went short on their time or if you lost a major story in the newscast. Our news could never go over into Walter Cronkite’s start time, but he was never going to start early either. You might also find that having that extra short story available can be valuable for you too.
Rebecca will be presenting a workshop, Let’s Keep It Short – Writing Short Stories at SavvyAuthors on April 24th.
Becky Martinez is a former broadcast journalist who writes mystery, romance and romantic suspense fiction that often features characters with backgrounds in TV. Her mystery novel, Blues at 11, features a TV anchorwoman falsely accused of murder.
She has written short stories for several anthologies and is also the co-author of the “Let’s Write A Story” series of books on writing.
Kimberly Delagarza is a familiar face in Los Angeles as she can be seen nightly on the evening news. She drives a fancy car, lives in a house on the beach and wears designer clothes. But the TV anchorwoman has been accused of murder No one believes she didn’t kill her louse of an ex-boyfriend after he dumped her. Her next picture may be on a wanted poster, and her home may be The Big House and she may soon be wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.
Can Kimberly catch a cagey killer who will stop at nothing to bring her down?