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How "Big" Is My Idea?

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Thu Oct 12, 2017 2:33 pm
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Megrim says...

Ever start writing something only to find yourself going way longer or way shorter than intended? That "short story" keeps up momentum into 25k+ words, while your grand "novel" fizzles out as soon as you look away. I feel you. Do this enough times, and you start to get a knack for how "big" an idea is going to be.

Stories have some key ingredients. Every story is made up of scenes. Every scene takes place somewhere, and has characters in it. Everything else is set dressing. So when planning ahead, these ingredients need to be taken into account:

    Number of Locations
    Number of Characters
    Complexity of Set Dressing

Every additional location or character will add words to the story.

Let's get into some specifics. There's short fiction (flash and short stories), and longer fiction (novellas, serials, and novels). The word counts I've given are approximates for "idea size", not necessarily the exact dictionary definitions for each term.

Flash Fiction <1k words
Flash fiction is all about efficiency. You need to be concise and to the point. A brief setup, a straightforward development, and a solid punch at the end. Flash is tons of fun, but really hard. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid more than...
    1 - 2 characters
    1 location
    Simple set dressing

Short Stories 2k - 8k words
Short stories give you more room to weave things together. For instance, if you need a bit of a longer growth arc for the protagonist, so they can learn over the course of a couple of scenes. Or if you want to showcase more of your unique SFF world. You don't have a lot of space to get crazy with POV switching or subplots, but there's some wiggle room to let the story breathe. Simpler "novel" ideas may actually make for better short stories. You'll find yourself hitting this wordcount area with...
    1 - 4 characters
    1 - 3 locations
    Simple to moderate set dressing

Novellas 15k - 40k
Novellas are essentially short novels. They have fewer plot events. So for instance, there may be many characters, but only one or two major plot turns. Or, there may be a longer plot, but fewer characters, without as much in the way of subplots. Novellas, in my experience, often come from an idea that's either too long for a short story, or too short for a novel. You probably have at least a novella-size idea if you have...
    3+ characters with multiple dynamics between them
    3+ locations
    Moderate to complex set dressing

Novels 60k - 120k
Novels come in a huge range of varieties, from the single-afternoon page-turners to the massive doorstoppers. What graduates an idea into novel-length is when you start getting a lot of intricacies: multiple plot threads, multiple POVs or character arcs, several areas of worldbuilding that need to be shown, and/or numerous subplots.

    Short novels are those with only 1 or 2 POV characters, linear structures, fast pacing, and/or less worldbuilding. They still have more complexity and dynamics than a novella.

    Long novels are needed once you get to multiple POVs, nonlinear structures and time jumps, and/or large numbers of locations that are shown on screen.

    Trilogies come into play when the idea is so big, you have a bunch more FULL novel-size ideas for the same world and characters--complete character arcs and plot arcs for a large number of settings and locations, with complex set dressing. (Be careful not to fool yourself into thinking you have a trilogy just because your idea is complex--both plot and character need FULL, SEPARATE arcs for every book)

These are general rules of thumb that may help you steer yourself ahead of time. Let's apply it to some examples.


A young soldier learns to ride dragons so he can enter the airforce in an alternate-universe World War I.

While this idea has the potential for further development, as-is that's only a short story. It's the kind of idea I often see bandied about as a full novel, but all the interesting parts could be told in a few thousand words. To turn this into a novel, we'd need to add more--companions with their own arcs, multiple battles, a change in the tide of the war that affects everybody, complexities involving the dragons themselves, etc.

In a dystopian world where an air toxin dulls the senses, rebel pockets fight against the elite living in purified habitats. Two undercover rebels each pose as one of the elite, and accidentally target each other.

I actually tried to write this one as flash. I only succeeded by greatly cutting down on the nuance I initially planned, and it ended up as one scene that raised a lot of "I wonder what will happen" type questions. In reality, this could be a novella, at least, because we have two separate MCs (different backgrounds, not a lot of screentime overlap in the beginning of the story), and two major locations that need a lot of time (inside the purified habitats, and out in the slums). Once you start fleshing out the other rebels and the others in the ruling class, you're getting to a novel-sized cast.

A historian uncovers a book that leads to alternate dimensions, like in the game Myst.

While Myst is a long, fun game, that's a flash-sized idea. Myst takes up the time with puzzles, and also some character/family drama with a father and two sons. What I've quoted here is only one character, who can spend a few paragraphs exploring two or three dimensions, and be done in a thousand words.

In a cyberpunk world, a techno-wizard learns the tricks of the trade in book 1, enters a secret society in book 2, and brings down the Evil Bad Guys in book 3.

Sad to say, this is a novel idea, not a trilogy. The arc SPANS those 3 "books"--the character learns about themself, makes a big life-changing decision, and then enacts the new skills they've learned to take down a villain. Spreading this into 3 books would bore readers out of their minds. To be honest, you could fit this into a novella, or even a short story if you're good at tight writing.

A flash fiction competition entry where an orphan learns to communicate with street rats and uses their help to fight back against the street bullies.

This actually could be done in flash. It could also be bulked up to be longer--if the kid has a friend or a sibling, you can get a few hundred more words. Give them a larger goal, and there's all sorts you could do with it--say they stumbled upon a murder just as the police arrive, then need to spend the book evading the police, discovering the real murderer and motive, and getting things set straight. That could be a short story or a novella. Make the murder part of a larger-reaching scheme or organization, and you've got a novel.

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
— Samuel Johnson