Monday, 3 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: How Long Should a Story Be?

A number of people have encouraged me to include more posts on this blog about the craft of writing, a subject I've touched on intermittently over the years. As I am currently hard at work on the next Lake District Mystery, questions about writing methods and so on are naturally uppermost in my mind, so I thought I'd run a series of posts about aspects of writing -mainly related to the crime genre, but not exclusively. In the light of responses, I'll then decide whether to continue or to focus on the range of topics that have usually featured here. I should add that I'm not seeking (or qualified) to make definitive judgments. I'm more interested in promoting constructive debate.

One issue that I do think about a good deal concerns the length of a story. Of course, there is no answer to the question 'how long should a story be?' other than 'it all depends'. But it's often worth thinking carefully about what the answer depends on. This topic is fresh in my mind having watched again that classic film Lawrence of Arabia. I first watched it as a teenager (my Dad was very keen on epics like Ben Hur and El Cid, as well as Lawrence of Arabia) and to be honest I appreciated it much more the second time around.

Given the brilliance of cast, script, desert photography, and indeed soundtrack, it's easy to see why David Lean's masterly film is widely acknowledged as a classic. Yet the fact is, it is very, very long. Would it be a worse film if it were, say, an hour shorter? Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson did a great job with the screenplay, but - and this may be a 21st century opinion - it seems to me that the film would have had even more impact had it been shorter. Yes, I know this is heresy, and I'm sure many will disagree...

Many books, similarly, can be improved if they are cut in length. This is even true of some novels, which, like Lawrence of Arabia, are wonderful. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an example that springs to mind. Sometimes a point is made more effectively if it isn't hammered home. A very good reviewer once said of one of my early books that, much as he liked it, he felt I'd done a bit too much hammering. Overall, I thought it was fair comment, and I've tried to keep it in mind ever since. What is the right length does depend on the individual novel, short story or screenplay in question. In general, though, it's surely a good idea for the length to be the minimum needed for the writer to get across everything that he or she considers essential to the story - not the maximum space available.


Anonymous said...

Martin - I couldn't possibly agree with you more. Authors can (and I would argue, should) use suggestion and other strategies, and then give free reign to the reader's imagination rather than add in too much 'padding.' The same logic, I would say, applies to sub-plots. It serves a story to add enough information on a sub-plot so the reader wants to know how it works out. That's how characters develop. But too much detail and the story meanders. And may I say I'm very much looking forward to your next Lake District story.

Anonymous said...

The principle of least action applies as much to writing fiction as it does to everything else.