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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Does Size Matter? Short stories and reader expectations...

Years ago I watched and was very impressed by the movie, “The Naked Jungle” with Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker. The set up had everything a romance should; a man who has carved an empire out of the South American jungle during the early part of the 20th century but hasn’t had time for anything else including women or relationships (which means he's a 34 year old virgin) and the caring but feisty widow he ends up with who is surprised to find he’d requested a virgin. Their go-between, who knew them both very wisely decided to neglect certain information in both cases thereby insuring a very interesting story.

Heston’s character was hungry for what he wasn’t getting, a wife and a glimpse of a world so outside his own realm that he literally wanted to devour them both. In the process of achieving his goal, he has built a house and furnished it with expensive furniture and an entire library of books that he’s bought by the pound.

I realize that as readers, we are all hungry for a good story and thanks to progress and the internet I don’t have to buy books by the pound to appease my appetite because trust me, it would take more than one boatload. Today, I can be selective and choose what story I want to read, whether it’s a little five or ten-thousand word short story or a full-length novel. When I buy a story, no matter what length, unlike Charlton's character who had no idea what he'd purchased, I have a good idea of what to expect.

To paraphrase a quote I once heard and can’t remember who to attribute it to, “Every story should have a beginning, middle and an end.” I have always assumed that this would be true for any length of story and have been surprised to find many short stories given low marks on reader sites because they found them “too short” and wanted more.

I have to admit my confusion. Do some readers feel cheated monetarily because the story was so short or were they so in love with the engaging characters that they didn’t want the story to end? This is rarely explained and I’m surprised when I see them admit they would have given the story a better rating if it had been longer.

Hmmmm…did the story fall short when it came to setting up the premise? Were the characters introduced somehow lacking in dimension? Did they not have a clear goal and/or was that goal not met or revised to suit the story being told? Was the ending abrupt or did it actually answer all of the questions presented and/or resolve any conflict in a satisfactory manner? Did it deliver the story that was promised according to the blurb or excerpt, which I’m assuming was the reason they’d purchased the story?

If the reader’s problem was with loving the story and not wanting it to end then I believe that the author did her/his job and have to wonder why a reader would penalize it with a lowered rating because of its length. I admit that I am perhaps slightly prejudiced in favor of giving full marks to the author who has managed to capture and express a small slice of life in the difficult medium of the short story.

I am truly interested in how readers determine their rating for a story/book. What is your first consideration when deciding how to rate a book/story? Do you have an automatic expectation in relation to the price you pay? How do you determine whether or not the story has met your expectations? I'd really like to know.

Thanks, and until next month

Happy Reading,

Paris Brandon

PS: I could probably write an entire blog about “The Naked Jungle” because Charlton and Eleanor portrayed wonderfully romantic characters in a lush setting plus you get the added adventure of Chuck heroically battling swarms of large hungry ants to save his home and his wife. What, I didn’t mention they were married by proxy? If you're a sucker for old romantic movies you really need to check this one out!

Now I'm really out of here:)




Tina Donahue said...

Great post, Paris. If a story makes me smile, laugh, cry, sigh, get angry, etc. - in other words, if it moves me emotionally, then it's done its job.

The stories that stay with me are those where I was so involved with the characters, I just didn't want to leave them. Doesn't matter to me whether the story's long or short, I want to be swept away in the tale.

Paris said...

Thanks Tina, same here. If I get swept away, size doesn't matter:)

Adele Dubois said...

Paris--I'd like the answer to your question, too. I've seen reviews criticize story length, though novella size books are standard fare at most epublishers and the story size is always listed in the book description.


Molly Daniels said...

Yeah, I've gotta check out that movie....

As for length, when I first began reading e-books, I didn't understand the concept of the EC Quickie. I was delighted by several blurbs/excerpts and bought them...and was alarmed when the characters finally rolled out of bed, announced their undying love, and BAM! End of story/book. I'll admit to being a slow learner; it took me several months to wrap my head around this type of book. And I still want to know what happens then next day, if one partner gets a phone call from an ex whom they're not completely over; or LIFE throws a curve ball; they get called into work and their phone dies, so they can't call to say they'll be late, which causes the other partner to wonder if it was all a dream, and jumps to get the picture.

I like stories which shows the entire picture; and to know these characters have the guts to overcome whatever obstacles LIFE throws at them in order to be with each other.

And yes, four years later, I can still appreciate a quickie...:)

anny cook said...

I suspect many "short" stories try to encompass too much. If a shortie is written more as a vignette--a slice of the characters' lives, then that's probably how it works best. I find when a story tries to take in too much territory, it's less satisfying. So that might be why some readers/reviewers say the story was too short.

Sarah Mäkelä said...

I agree. I think you made a great point. Do readers want more, or do they feel cheated? Although, I know with a lot of e-publishers like the one I'm with, the number of pages and length is available on the purchase page. Very curious! Thanks for the post.

Katalina said...

In a buy-in-bulk society, I think it's difficult for some readers to appreciate the short story as an art form separate from a novel.
A short story and a novel require two very different toolkits. In a perfect world each would be judged by their own standards.
Personally, I'd rather read a well-crafted short story, than a large novel loaded with filler. Lately, I've read several full sized novels that had 100+ page passages of forgettable nothing in the middle... More is not always more.

jean hart stewart said...

For me it's the story itself, not the length. I'll admit I usually like longer stories than quickies, since I want to get to know the characters in depth, and that's hard in a quickie.

Fran Lee said...

Well, as for The Naked Jungle, I have that movie and I loved it when I first saw it in the 50's. As for those comments on book reviews and pages because a story was short? Some reviewers will give it a great rating then grouse a bit about how they hated it to end. But have they heard of "short but sweet"? I have read books that were marvelous...I adored them...but as the plot rolled on and on and on it felt as if the author were simply stretching it out to increase the word count. To me, that makes a fabulously wonderful novella into a not-so-wonderful full length novel that left me a bit drained.

As for Adele's post, I agree that people should already be aware of the length, but to some folks, a novella is actually a short story. To others, a novel is 300 pages. No one seems to equate "30k" words with roughly 70-80 pages of written text. If they bought that book at a third party vendor site where the full MSRP is charged, that can bring lots of complaints. I always suggest to readers that they check out the publisher's website to see if it is cheaper there.

Harlie Reader said...

Great post Paris and for me it doesn't matter what the length of the story is as long as its a good story. That said, I have a problem with paying over $5 for an ebook.


Paris said...

Adele: Yes, it is puzzling. the story length is listed and when the reader doesn't comment exactly why they wanted more, it's confusing.

Molly: Oh honey, I love that movie:) I've been enjoying the EC Quickie line too.

Anny: Excellent point!

Sarah: You're welcome:) I find it very curious, also.

Kat: Excellent points!

Jean: That's the beauty of e-publishing, lol! There's something for everyone:)

Fran: Naked Jungle is one of my all-time favorites and you made some excellent points!

Thank you to everyone who stopped by and left comments!


Janice Seagraves said...

I watched that old Charlton Heston movie so long ago that all I remember is the swarm of ants. *shutter*

I prefer long reads. A nice think novel I can sink my reader teeth into. But on occasion I like shorts. They're great if your attention span isn't there but you want to read something. Doctor offices come to mind.

But like a much longer novel, short stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. They have to deliver and live up to the readers expectations. And the characters still have to be fully developed.

And it can be done. I've read a few that were horrible and you can tell the author jotted the thing out in an evening. Then there were one or two that were so wonderful they left me in tears.


Cara Marsi said...

The Naked Jungle sounds really good. I'll have to check it out. As a writer who's sold a dozen short stories to magazines, I was especially interested in your post. I love writing short stories. Whatever length a story is, it has to have a beginning, middle and satisfying ending. With my short romance stories, I always make sure my main character has learned a lesson and grown, and there's always the promise of HEA. I agree with some of the others who said they'd rather read a good short story than a longer story with filler. The length of the story is always given for ebooks, but maybe some readers don't notice that. I don't understand why a reviewer would say a story is too short when it's a short story. Thanks for a good post.

Paris said...

Janice, thanks for stopping by! I have to agree with you. The story has to be delivered no matter what length.

Paris said...

Cara, thanks for stopping by. I think you may be right about readers not noticing the length of the story when they purchase it.

Paris said...

Good to know! Thanks for stopping by:)

Tessie Bradford said...

I do not understand a 'short story' receiving low marks for being a 'short story'!??!
Rate it on plot, character development and emotional impact based on what it is.

Paris said...

Thanks, Tessie, we use the same rating system:)

susan said...

A book's size really doesn't matter if there is a great story line..some of the thicker books I have read all too full of boring "page fillers" and then others are just full of good details. I read 100 page books and I read 600 page books and love them all IF they hold my interest. If they are too full of useless words the size is just that and the author is only trying to write a thick book. susan Leech

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