Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Audience Age Affects Story Length

(Find my previous posts on what determines story length by going to my personal blog,

Factors that Determine the Length of a Story #4: Audience Age

This factor is related to and overlaps with genre, but it’s significant enough to mention on its own. Whereas genre’s influence is primarily predicated upon audience expectation, counterintuitively, the effect of audience age on length is primarily a matter of publishing convention. Simply stated, publishing hates long books, and it assumes that the younger or more recreational the reader, the more they are in agreement with that antipathy. I’m a big believer that actual readers are much more flexible than the publishing industry believes them to be when it comes to story length. Books like the Harry Potter series should have made clear that short isn’t always better for younger readers. Unfortunately, publishers typical terror at long books—which is understandable if not necessarily justifiable, given the nature of their work—causes them to hold on to any support for their position with tenacity.

So, the younger your audience, the shorter your story is likely to be. This is true of short stories as well as novels, as what can be handled in a single reading by a seven year old is likely to be shorter than what a twenty-two year old could enjoy. This isn’t completely an industry convention motivated by risk avoidance, however. Stories for younger audiences tend to employ shorter chapters, paragraphs, and sentences—even fewer syllables, as they depend on more basic diction. This results in less total length. They often are simpler stories too, with few or no POV shifts or subplots, which also streamlines the final product.

All this being said, I believe that young or old, what motivates most dedicated readers—and many novice readers—is the quality of the experience. And a big—in scope, vision, and duration—story can give a different experience than a short read, whether for seventy-year-old professors of English or six-year-old students. So being a little on the long side isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a great thing if that additional length not only earns its place, but takes the rest of the story and elevates it all. 200 pages of okay won’t be read like 400 pages of greatness. Just be sure that your 400 pages are really great (they usually won’t be, as at least 50 pages of drivel will often creep in).

Even if every one of the 400 pages in your middle grade novel is truly great, you very well might not be published. The sad truth is that too much cost and too much risk outweigh the worth of the work almost always, in today’s publishing climate. So it might behoove you to learn how to write a great shortish story, whatever audience you write for.