Strange Horizons and the Ideal Story Length

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of monthly reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, The Fix is no longer around so I'm reprinting these reviews on my website.

What’s the ideal short story length? Such a simple question, yet one that’s impossible to answer without embracing the old cliché that “a short story should be only as long as needed to tell the story.”

According to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, short stories fall into the following categories: true short stories, with fewer than 7,500 words; novelettes, between 7,500 and 17,500 words; and novellas, with more than 17,500 words. Anything longer than 40,000 words is deemed novel-length fiction. And while those are the official divisions of the short story—at least with regards to how the Nebula Awards are distributed—there’s a further informal classification for short stories, with stories under a thousand words being counted as flash fiction.

It would seem there’s a length for every type of fictional tale. However, that’s not how the publishing industry views the situation. For major book publishers, fiction revolves almost exclusively around the novel. Short stories—don’t even talk to publishers about short stories! While science fiction and fantasy novels sell very well, shorter speculative fiction is a hit and mostly miss affair. As a result, short stories are mainly published in genre magazines, few of which approach the sales of even the weakest genre novels.

This simple marketing fact sometimes results in strange twists in the life cycle of stories. For example, Greg Bear’s novelette, “Blood Music,” is often listed among the best science fiction novelettes of the last quarter century, having won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. A few years after writing the story, Bear expanded it into a novel which, while well received, doesn’t match the power of the original novelette. Even though the expanded novel was easier for publishers to market and sell—and it’s quite likely more people read the novel than the novelette—that doesn’t change the general critical opinion that the novelette was the perfect length for Bear’s classic story.

But again this begs the question, what is the ideal length for short stories? And again, the answer is: It depends.

The October, 2008, selections of Strange Horizons‘ fiction offer a perfect opportunity to explore the question of how long short stories should be. Some of these stories are perfectly suited for their allotted length. Some should have been expanded to more perfectly fit the tale.

The first, “Swan Song” by Joanne Merriam, takes us into the mundane life of a woman who sorts Medicare claims for a living, a job which pays well enough but is nothing to write home about. Mixed into her life are semi-comical but realistic episodes with her coworkers, a live-in boyfriend, and her mother.

But soon the narrator becomes aware that the people around her are having the same recurring dreams as they begin dying from an unknown disease. Worse, as this disease goes epidemic, those who get infected are unconcerned. The reason: the infected experience a deep feeling of being both completely understood and at perfect peace. As a result, the victims are happy and content right up until they die.

The story is very well written and also engaging, which is impressive because the first third deals with a rather boring look at a rather boring life. This is to be expected, as most day-to-day lives are boring. We wake up, we go to jobs we’d rather not do, we carry on at conversations we’d rather not have. But the strength of Merriam’s writing is that this day-to-day tedium holds as much poetry and resonance and insight as the more tense scenes later in the story, after the epidemic has been revealed.

“Swan Song” is a very good example of a midrange short story, hitting a mere 3,600 words. In fact, many critics consider the 3,000-word range to be the perfect short story length, if such perfection can actually be said to exist. “Swan Song” is just long enough for the reader to comfortably settle into, but not so long that the story begins to wear the reader down.

The next story, “The Lion and the Mouse” by Kaolin Imago Fire, is a futuristic retelling of the Aesop’s fable of the same name—the difference being that in this short tale, the robotic mouse is the one with the power while the outmoded lion is always weak. It is also an anti-fable, but not in good way. Unlike the original fable, which ends with its famous moral of “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted,” this fable ends with a lot of flash and bang but no deeper resonance for the reader.

At 1007 words—just over the flash fiction length—”The Lion and the Mouse” is definitely the proper length for its story. But the problem is that, as with so many flash fiction stories, the author had to rely on clichés and jargon to compress the story to this length. This stylistic shortcut enables a quick connection for in-the-know readers, but can leave others with a case of “What the hell?” For example, in one short paragraph alone, the following terms and phrases are used without contextual definition or explanation: “molybdenum,” “learning routines, “broad spectrum white noise,” and “EM in a scrap Faraday cradle.” Any reader who isn’t up on their jargon will be lost. This makes the retelling read more like a computer programmer’s fable, designed to be enjoyed by one with the needed familiarity with the computer-based jargon, which the narrator throws around like the debris found in the mouse’s junkyard home.

Our next tale, “Just After Midnight” by Christie Skipper Ritchotte, is another piece of flash fiction, this time clocking in at a mere 624 words. But unlike “The Lion and the Mouse,” Ritchotte keeps the story’s focus firmly on characters the reader can relate to—in this case, a sister and her diseased brother. The disease, part of a larger epidemic which has devastated the world, has left the brother with the intelligence and behavior of a dog. The sister actually takes her brother for walks on a leash through their now dangerous neighborhood.

In line with my previous criticism of flash fiction, “Just After Midnight” relies at times on fictional shortcuts, such as not helping the reader understand words like “fem-skins.” Overall, though, “Just After Midnight” works well and carries a strong emotional punch. Because it is so short, it’s difficult to mention too many plot details without giving too much away. But let me just say that after finishing it, I couldn’t help but compare it to another dystopian story published this year, “Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi (from his short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories). “Just After Midnight” contains many of the same themes as Bacigalupi’s much longer novella, and it would have been interesting to see “Just After Midnight” expanded to a longer length so the reader could experience more of this fascinating world and its amazing characters. So while I liked this story, I came away hungry for much more.

The final Strange Horizons‘ story is “Nine Sundays in a Row” by Kris Dikeman. This elegantly written piece is an exciting new take on a fantasy trope I’d thought nearly done to death—the trickster at the crossroads story. This time, the story is told from the point of view of the trickster’s dog, who watches over those poor souls who wait at the dark crossroads in vain attempts to win their heart’s desire.

The person wanting the trickster’s help this go around is a poor girl in a poor land, a setting much like the lush and damned Mississippi landscape where musician Robert Johnson supposedly made his own deal with the trickster. In this case, the girl is desperate to escape from a life which is literally killing her and dreams of becoming a card shark in that fabled gambling city in the distant western desert.

The dog isn’t having any of this. He knows that his master never lets anyone get the better of him on these deals. But as the dog and girl become friends, the dog realizes that there are limits to what he can do to save her life. In this conflict between helping the girl and obeying his master, the dog’s wonderful voice drags the reader through the tale like a chew toy with no chance—or desire—of escape.

I can’t praise Dikeman’s writing enough. She strikes the perfect note between evocative descriptions of the land and moving the tale along. She also creates memorable characters with just a few words and lines—characters which tug at your emotions as the tale winds down to its tragic, or perhaps uplifting, conclusion. An amazing story and highly recommended.

I should also add that at 4,700 words, “Nine Sundays in a Row” is the perfect length for this tale. If it had been expanded to novelette length, perhaps so the author could show us more of the poor girl’s heartbreaking life, the reader likely would have been numbed by the casual brutality of the setting. If the story had been shorter, the reader wouldn’t have been able to experience the nuance and beauty which emanates from the characters and their interactions with each other.

In the end, I suppose the only true answer to the question of the ideal short story length is indeed that old cliché. A story should be only as long as is needed to tell the story.

If, that is, the story is done right in the first place.