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[GUEST POST] Charles Davis on The Importance of Story Length Within Science Fiction and Fantasy

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 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.”

19 Comments on [GUEST POST] Charles Davis on The Importance of Story Length Within Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. I, too, love really long novels and series, from Dragonriders of Pern to anything Neal Stephenson or China Mieville should happen to write. However, all too often — especially with novellas — I’ll enjoy the story, but wish there had been 1/2 the details, perhaps 1/3 the exposition. Oft times, a story will give up its punch by straying too far from its core.

    There’s plenty of room for all kinds of stories, and will continue to be. (I think.)

    • I totally hear what your saying and agree, but I don’t know if I think that’s a generalized problem with length and more just how the story is written. I don’t necessarily believe that length needs to equate to being boring.

  2. A novel is just a fluffed up novella.

    • And a brussel sprout is just a tiny cabbage.

    • Ellen Datlow // March 20, 2012 at 9:03 pm //

      Far too often, yes.

      There are brilliant short stories, novelettes, and novellas just as there are brilliant novels.

      I love the perfect gem of a short story when I’m in the mood for it (or when I’m editing them) and I love a self-contained novel -whatever length as long as it’s not too contracted nor padded. It’s simply a question of taste not that one is better than the other . You like your fiction longwinded (to be as insulting as you are to the short story) i prefer mine compact.

  3. Jeff Patterson // March 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm //

    There were 88 episodes of Farscape plus the wrap up miniseries. 4000 minutes perhaps.

    • Oops! Good catch. That’s a typo. I meant to say “minutes” not “hours.”

      • Jeff Patterson // March 20, 2012 at 9:16 pm //

        I just did the math: 4000 hours would be 153 seasons of 26 episodes each.
        Of course it could be spread across multiple shows. The Law & Order franchise is up to 900 hours.
        Of course now I want to write a story about the seventh generation of a future family of TV producers preparing the 5000th episode of a popular show.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer // March 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm //

    The good thing about novels that are too long is that you can cut them short yourself.

    Personally, I think SF has always been a genre of girth.

    • Interesting thought. Is there a difference between “length” and “girth?”

    • The classic sf novels (back in the days of fix-ups) like Heinlein’s Puppet Masters seemed relatively short to me (before Stranger in a Strange Land). These days you can’t even reprint Peter Hamilton’s 1st two Mandel Files novels in America without glomming them together into one book.

  5. Jason McDonald // March 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm //

    I’m one of these readers that Mr. Davis is talking about. In the past few years, I’ve really dived into shorter length fiction, primarily through various websites around the Net – Subterranean Press, TOR, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and some of the more popular SF podcasts. Since then, I’ve come to believe that SF in particular, although possibly not fantasy, works best at shorter lengths, anything from a drabble to a novella. When SF gets into novel length, far too often it’s filled with all sorts of setting bloat and piles of extraneous details that just don’t grab me at all (Dan Simmons, I’m looking at you).

    Now, that’s not to say that I’m totally against novel length SF. That’s not true. I’ve got a shelf full of them, so, I guess I must like them. But, for my money, shorter fiction is where it’s at for SF.

    Thinking about it, I believe the divide is because, again in my opinion, SF is primarily focused on specific themes – what does it mean to be human? what are the ramifications of X? That sort of thing. And, because of that focus, SF doesn’t play particularly well at novel length.

    • I understand your point, however I think I disagree. It seems to me that when you’re explore themes such as “what does it mean to be human”, it would be one of the most complex endeavors you could write about! I would think that you would need length to really get into that.

      As for settings and details, yeah I get that perspective, but personally I actually like world building and details. It let’s me feel like something is real. It most likely comes down to what your taste is I suppose. I will admit that I do personally take joy in exploring the banality of existence.

      • Jason McDonald // March 21, 2012 at 5:45 pm //

        Oh, it’s totally a personal taste thing. Not a problem.

        However, I would point out that some of the most powerful writings on the philosophical subject of what it means to be human and whatnot are not all that terribly long. Certainly not the doorstopper bricks that fantasy seems to be so in love with.

  6. MarylandBill // March 20, 2012 at 9:21 pm //

    No offense, but this piece is just plain wrong. Some of the most powerful stories in Science Fiction have been short stories; and some of the most celebrated authors specialized in shorter length fiction (Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury anyone?). Asimov, Heinlein and Clark may all be famous for their novels, but they got started (and became famous) writing short fiction. Indeed, Asimov’s most famous works, his Robot stories and his Foundation Series were originally built on short fiction, the novels came later. Indeed many of the most famous universes in Science Fiction were either created through collections of short stories or fleshed out with short stories and novellas. And yes, they may be inter-related, but the stories don’t generally depend on each other. You don’t need to read most of Asimov’s robot stories in order for each story to make sense (the novels are an exception).

    Like all fiction, each story has its right length. Short Stories like “Nightfall” or “Blood Music” can be extended to create a decent novel, but generally at the expense of the impact of the original story.

    Finally, I would point out that the truly monumental epic is really a rather recent development. The Lord of the Rings was fairly long, for a novel (Very long for its day), but still is really only around a 1000 pages total (maybe a bit more if you include the appendixes). Some modern stories, particularly fantasy stories start out with the first book in the series being that long!

    Indeed, what is interesting is that Science Fiction at least remains one of the few genres of literature where the short form retains a reasonably decent audience.

    Likewise, long multi-volume epics are not the sole province of speculative fiction (Though I will admit that the quest story seems to be fairly unique to the genre). Hornblower, Sharpe, Audbury and Maturin are examples of modern series that stretch 10 or more volumes (or 20!). Even in the 19th century, the adventures of D’Artangin stretched to fill three rather long novels (The last so long that it is almost always divided into three parts).

    So, ultimately long stories are neither necessary nor particularly unique to Science Fiction and Fantasy.

  7. I read very short stories of Arthur C Clarke, that were brilliant.Also the short robot stories of Asimov were really good.but I think there were more magazines to publish them in then. And when I looked into writing science fiction myself, I was told that there was no way I would be able to publish a novel, before I started writing and publishing short stories in science fiction magazines. Publishers would not accept me for a novel, first.but I’m not sure if that’s true anymore?

    What really bothers me, and why I have trouble reading NEW science fiction novels, is because almost every novel turns into two,three,four continuing novels that you can’t do without! That drives me crazy!(unless it’s Asimov)I just want to pick up a novel, and have it end there.I know that authors now, especially in fantasy, want to do a whole series of novels. Nobody wants to think up a full conceptual world that ends in one novel, it’s too much work!And a series will keep the reader coming back for more. So how can short story writers survive? Only if you write many collections of short stories, all related. Arthur C Clarke had so many ideas, he did write a lot of very brilliant short stories, all unrelated. if anybody can give me the name of an author, or authors nowadays,of science fiction who are like Arthur C Clarke as far as short stories, I’d like to read him or her.I miss his ideas a lot.

  8. I definitely side with Charles Davis and prefer/privilege long-form SF&F while still consuming shorter pieces in between long novels/series as a refreshing discrete experience. Perhaps 1,000 pages is not required to fully give flesh to abstract concepts, but the extra components such as the world building, character development, diversions, and asides all contribute to a richer more immersive experience. Recently I have been reading a lot of Neal Stephenson and I have been loving his long-form prose. Many describe Stephenson as a writer embracing the “Maximalism” style where digression, excessive elaboration of detail, references, and info-dumps are quite the norm. I can see where some readers may be turned off by that approach, but it makes for a very rich erudite experience. Stephenson is one of those authors that makes me want to further investigate and research included topics after I finish one of his novels and I value that.

    Short stories and short-form may pack a more immediate punch and possess more emotional gravitas, but–for me at least–they less frequently inspire a longing to exist in their world, ponder their meanings, or further research and explore their ideas. They are easily digestible, succinct, and quantifiable…but do not linger in reality or in my consciousness (which may be a pro or con depending on your taste).

    I also think that wider consumer preferences is cyclical. Readers may increasingly prefer shorter fiction as a reaction to the lengthy volumes and series from the 80’s, 90’s and even 00’s in the SFF genre. Short-form fiction may experience a revival due to that reaction, consumer’s dwindling free-time, and competing entertainment offerings. Though I assure you if short-form fiction gains mainstream acceptance for a decade their will certainly be a long-form reaction surging on its tail.

    This was a great article. I am really loving this site lately and the podcasts have been phenomenal. Thank you.

  9. I have to disagree with those touting the short story. I despise it. Far too short. The story barely gets interesting and it’s over. It’s been a decade since I read a short story and that won’t be changing.

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