Some stories should never be compressed into a small word count.

I’ve seen this happen plenty of times, particularly with freshly-signed new authors publishing their first manuscript. Stories with too many elements or complex, layered characters often lose their punch when the author is forced to trim and cut the manuscript in order to meet a certain word count limit. An example of this is Thanes Redemption by Nina Crespo. From my review on GraveTells

This story has a lot of potential. It’s original and creative and features characters you want to get to know better. Unfortunately, it’s simply far too short. The romance moves so quickly at first that it feels forced, or like maybe the reader isn’t getting the whole picture. Likewise, the characters (initially) aren’t very well developed – not enough to carry the depth of emotion the story wants to portray, anyway. The time-traveling premise, while intriguing, really needs to be better explained and more organically demonstrated.

I would really like to see this story expanded from its current 25k word count into a full-length novel, fleshed out into the epic, emotional journey it so clearly aspires to be; this could easily move my “meh” rating up to a “wowzers”! Thane’s Redemption feels like a story that is close to the author’s heart but has been cut and spliced to force it into a publisher’s requirement for a shorter word count.

Alternately, requiring and enforcing a restrictive word count can help an author focus and refine a story.

Self-published authors tend to be most at risk to produce overly-lengthy, rambling, industrial-sized tomes. Indulging in textual excess can destroy a story as surely as cutting one to pieces. Prolific self-published author Sara King has released a few books which blow through 100k words and keep right on going: some examples are Forging Zero and Alaskan Fury. The stories themselves are sweeping and well-constructed—really quite enjoyable, overall—but a tighter word count could more effectively pace these daunting, intensely immersive story worlds. This is also true of Amy Lane’s Vulnerable, the first in her Little Goddess series; the concept and delivery of the story have real promise, but snipping a good chunk of the (at times rambling) prose could tighten and focus it into a masterpiece. Here is an excerpt from my review of Alaskan Fury on GraveTells

After a vigorous start, this story takes some time to develop. While it’s always well-crafted and entertaining, I found myself looking forward to the next big development rather than absorbing the storyline I was reading.

There is an incredible amount of historical information about angels and other mythical beings in Alaskan Fury.

[It] is very long. As a reader who isn’t typically a fan of urban fantasy, the length of these books made me impatient. […] Some of the fighting scenes could have been combined into a sleeker plot arc.

Then there are stories which are just right for a 20k or 40k word count length.

Laura Kaye’s In the Service of the King is ideally crafted so that just enough history and characterization are woven in without skipping anything important or dragging down the pace. She manages to make this novella as emotionally impactful as her full length novels without seeming to sacrifice anything. Here’s what I had to say about In the Service of the King on GraveTells:

There is an elegance to Laura Kaye’s writing, subtle descriptors and skillful turn of phrase, that enhance and imply and insinuate, all without leaving the text feeling bloated or flowery. Heavy on the relationship intrigues, with no fighting or violence at all, this story fairly flew by. In the Service of the King is a novella that concentrates 100% on the connection between our two stubborn soul mates, yet still leaves open a few intriguing avenues to expand the series.

 

Choose wisely when given your parameters (or when setting them yourself). But, when you do find just the right fit for that novella or short story submission call, here’s how to make it happen!

The secrets to writing a great story within a tight word count restriction are…

  1. Keep everything simple. Don’t give the characters unnecessarily complex histories or overly complicate your plot elements.
  2. Write relatable characters. What motivates them? Loss of a loved one? Choose something easily relatable by your audience so you can spend your valuable words on the more important parts and give your readers the freedom to bring their own emotional energy to the experience.
  3. Include no more than 4 named characters, 5 if you absolutely must and 3 if you’re targeting the smaller end of the word count spectrum. Each character will consume words, need page space, and need to be worked into the plot arc, so only attempt as many as you can thread in with flair!
  4. The story universe should be pre-established or simple and relatable enough that it doesn’t require extensive rules or explanations. Build (and depend) on the intrinsic lexical knowledge of your target audience. If you think you may need a prologue just to set the scene and explain terminology, consider how you can simplify the story universe and then organically work your “tells” into the story itself.