Charles Davis is the writer and producer of original Sci-Fi Audio Dramas at Sci-Fi Radio Theater. The podcasts are availalbe on iTunes or at scifiradiotheater.com. Charles can be followed on twitter @Dasegad or @SFRadioTheater.

The Importance of Story Length Within Science Fiction and Fantasy

I’d like to explore the importance, and reasons, of long story length within science fiction and fantasy. But to start, I should disclose that I’m coming from a rather biased perspective. By nature, I am a very longwinded person, and as such, I like longwinded stories; stories that are really involved and take you away…get you wrapped up in it. Because of this, it kind of makes sense that I am fan of sci-fi. In my mind, there is no other genre that is more suited to length than science fiction and fantasy.

Science fiction and fantasy has historically been a space that has been open to longer stories. The Lord of the Rings was three books and thousands of pages. Your standard “epic” SciFi movie will be anywhere from two hours to over three hours long. The entirety of Farscape is close to a 4,000 hour minute experience (of which most people think is not long enough!)

But why has science fiction always been a genre of length? I think it’s due to 2 things:

  1. Due to the nature of world building in science fiction and fantasy, long length has pretty much been a necessity. If you really want to get into a situation where the world you are creating feels real, feels like a place that real people live in, you need time to explore the details. This includes details about both the world and the characters that inhabit it. This is especially true when you consider the fact that in most science fiction and fantasy stories we are talking about worlds and characters (and even species) that don’t exist. As such, readers do not have a point of reference most of the time and it is up to the storyteller to create that believability. This requires time.
  2. Fans like long stories. I’m a bit hostile towards the term “escapism,” but I can’t deny that it is an important effect of a good science fiction story. That ability to feel the world you’re reading/watching/hearing about on an experiential level. To reach that level of experience, length and time are a necessity. Additionally, when you are in a state of pure escapism, you want to hang around in it for a while.

Now, this is not to say that short science fiction stories cannot and have not been successful. Of course they have. “Creep Show” and “Weird Tales” were just collections of short stories. But for me — and this is more of a biased editorial than an objective statement — short science fiction stories have always lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Interesting, yes. Intriguing, yes. But ultimately lacking in that deep connection to characters and that feeling of getting “lost” in a world.

What is most interesting to me is where the future of science fiction story telling is heading, given the current state of the digital age. This is particularly true for Internet based fiction. Time and time again we have seen data suggesting that online users (at least when it comes to experiencing visual media) prefer short tidbits of storytelling, typically in between 3-5 minutes in length. As a longwinded storyteller, this is a bit worrisome. (To give some perspective, a typical script length for one of my radio play episodes is about 30 pages with an hour long run time). Are science fiction fans (the most active participants in the online world) losing their interest in length? Has their standard attention span dropped? Is the concept of a long story dying out? I would hope not. As a storyteller, taking the time to get you involved with my story is one of the greatest joys of writing.

However, I feel that there is still hope for the continuation of the long story. Hour long podcasts are still the standard. Sci Fi movies are still pushing 2-3 hour time lengths. I even feel there is room for long story length on entities such as YouTube, at least for now. If you look at recent science fiction and fantasy web series such as Reise or Dragon Age: Redemption, you realize that despite being delivered in 5-10 minute chunks, the stories themselves when put all together were closer to 1 to 1 1/2 hours in length. In this sense the conversation may be less about shortening the length of a story overall and more about where the breaks in a single story should occur. For instance, in my radio plays, I will break up each episode with commercial breaks as a storytelling tool. It’s essentially the same thing as just delivering a series of short episodes.

In the end, a good story takes time to tell. This is especially true when you are dealing with the science fiction and fantasy genres. To quote Treebeard “…we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”

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