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What—and How Much—Belongs in Your Novel?

“How long is too long?”

The question comes up at every conference.  How long should a novel be?  It puzzles me that this anxiety persists.  We are in a literary era that tolerates length.  Game of Thrones, anyone?  Even at 292,000 words, George Martin’s first novel in his epic series is not even in the race.  Gone with the Wind is 419,00 words long.  War and Peace is 560,000.  Even those do not compare to Marienbad My Love by Mark leach, which clocks in at 17.8 million words.

(To be fair, Marienbad My Love is an “open source” novel created by a conceptual artist and which leans heavily on found texts.  It’s a desert island story in which a filmmaker “attempts to persuade a married women (sic) from his past to help him produce a science fiction-themed pastiche to the 1960s French New Wave classic, Last Year at Marienbad.”  It includes a UFO, Nazi/alien collaborations, mind control, a Cthulu-worthy green monster and the end of the world.[1] [1]  Plenty to say there, obviously.)

At the other end of the spectrum lies the fear that a given novel may be too short.  That anxiety, too, strikes me as odd.  No one told Aesop that his tale “The Miser” was too short at 160 words.  Here it is in its entirety:

A miser sold all that he had and bought a lump of gold, which he buried in a hole in the ground by the side of an old wall and went to look at daily. One of his workmen observed his frequent visits to the spot and decided to watch his movements. He soon discovered the secret of the hidden treasure, and digging down, came to the lump of gold, and stole it. The Miser, on his next visit, found the hole empty and began to tear his hair and to make loud lamentations. A neighbor, seeing him overcome with grief and learning the cause, said, “Pray do not grieve so; but go and take a stone, and place it in the hole, and fancy that the gold is still lying there. It will do you quite the same service; for when the gold was there, you had it not, as you did not make the slightest use of it.[2] [2]

 If it makes you feel better, you can add the twelve words that convey the moral of the story: “The worth of material wealth comes from what you do with it.”  In truth, there are few publishing categories—as in certain short contemporary romance lines, for instance—in which absolute length limits remain in place.  Even the old dictum that YA novels should not exceed 75,000 words has been blown out of the water.

The standard answer to the question that I and most industry professionals give at conferences is your novel should be as long (or short) as it needs to be.  That glib advice, though, for me glosses over the deeper question which is really the one that should be asked: What—and how much—belongs in my novel?

That question, in turn, masks a different and even deeper anxiety, which is about whether any given material on the page actually belongs there.  I observe that anxiety in particular in workshops when participants ask about “that interior stuff”; meaning, the heavy exposition inherent in deep POV writing.  How much of a character’s internal thoughts and feelings is right?  How much telling versus how much showing?

Even those questions, for me, don’t get all the way down to the true issue.  The true issue is whether any given words, whether dialogue or action or exposition, are doing the work of storytelling.  Are all words on the page necessary or are some extraneous, possibly even self-indulgent?  More simply, how do you know what belongs and what doesn’t?

The practical answer is not precise but is founded on a principle which can guide you through composition, revision and editing.  The answer: it depends.  On what?  On your story type and intent, and in what is necessary to create the effect you want on your readers.

Aesop wanted to make a point.  Few words were needed.  Margaret Mitchell want to convey a woman’s experience of an era in history.  That took a few more words.  In each case, though, the words were the right words: nothing extraneous, all the words always needed.  Let’s take a look at how and why any given material on the page becomes essential.

What Belongs

André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (2007)—you may have seen the movie—is a gay love story (by a straight author, note) that tells the anguished tale of a teenage boy who falls in love with a male guest at his parent’s mansion on the Italian Riviera.  (I know, I know…poor kid.)  The time isn’t stated but the novel’s languorous pace and charming metachronous affectations, such as substituting “B.” for the name of a nearby city, suggest a closeted culture and era when same-sex love was not openly accepted.

So tormented and obsessive is the situation that the two subjects do not even receive names until well into the story.  (They are Elio and Oliver.)  The author’s intent is to convey the anguish and longing felt by Elio, which he does at length throughout in passages like this about Oliver’s first stealthy night visit to Elio’s room:

…I feigned to be fast asleep, thinking, This is not, cannot, had better not be a dream, because the words that came to me, as I pressed by eyes shut, were, This is like coming home, like coming home after years away among Trojans and Lestrygonians, like coming home to a place where everyone is like you, where people know, they just know—coming home as when everything falls into place and you suddenly realize that for seventeen yeas all you’d been doing was fiddling with the wrong combination.

Later, Elio tries (fruitlessly) to kick himself of the habit of obsessing over Oliver:

I should learn to avoid him, sever each tie, one by one, as neurosurgeons do when the split one neuron from another, one thought-tormented wish from the next, stop going to the back garden, stop spying, stop heading to town at night, wean myself a bit at a time each day, like an addict, one day, one hour, one minute, one slop-infest second after the other.  It could be done.  I knew there was no future in this.[3] [3]

 Could the same sentiments not have been expressed in far fewer words, such as I was glad when he snuck into my room or I wish I could quit you?  Certainly, but if so the hot torment felt by Elio would not have the same force and effect.  It would be a thin treatment of Elio’s inner state.  Given the novel’s purpose and intent, it would shortchange readers.  We would not have the experience the author intends us to have.

The opposite of the exposition-heavy, deep POV writing so popular in our era is perhaps the punchy, two-fisted storytelling of the noir period.  Mid-twentieth Century readers, or crime readers anyway, evidently did not need to know too much about what was thought and felt by the anti-heroes of the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  Showing was all.  Telling was left for others.

In noir fiction desire is a transaction; a sometimes cheap, always lurid, representation of a corrupt world in which no one can be trusted and truth comes at a cost.  In Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury (1947), his tough-as-nails protagonist, PI Mike Hammer, races to find a killer.  Along the way he investigates twin sisters, the Bellemy’s, one of whom is (in contemporaneous understanding) a nymphomaniac.  Dressed (barely) in a sheer pink negligee, she quickly comes on to Hammer:

[Note: Before I quote this laughably/horrifically sexist passage, please consider that it was published in 1947, not to excuse it.  I am taking this text from its Signet paperback edition, twenty-fifth printing, with 1.6 million copies sold.  Spillane’s dedication—I kid you not—is to “MY WIFE”.  What she thought of this passage is not recorded, as far as I know.]

“Tell me,” I started, “how can you tell the difference between you and your sister?”

“One of us has a small strawberry birthmark on the right hip?”

“Which one?”

“Why don’t you find out?”  Brother, this girl was asking for trouble.

I perhaps don’t need to quote further, but the passage doesn’t end exactly as expected…well, not entirely:

I was only human.  I bent over her, taking her mouth on mine.  She was straining in the divan to reach me, her arms tight around my neck.  Her body was a hot flame…[oy, I’ll spare you]…Now I knew why she hadn’t married.  One man could never satisfy her….

I grabbed my hat and jammed in on my head.  “It must be your sister who has the birthmark,” I told her as I rose.  “See you later.”[4] [4]

Not much introspection needed, is there?  I mean, what can Hammer say?  The situation says it all.  What the reader should feel is left up to the reader and, in another way perhaps, literary critics.

Read today, this passage makes me sad at the cold, transactional portrayal of the relationship between men and women at the time, so different than now…or is it?  From a technical perspective, though, the choice to leave Hammer’s thoughts and feelings largely out of it exactly serves the purpose: This is a world in which feeling is dangerous and introspection is weak.

That’s what Spillane wanted to get across.  For him, showing was the forceful and right approach.  Telling would only have detracted from the effect.

Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty (2018) offers an altogether different take on the topic of yearning and desire.  In this story world, all women have sickened and died.  Only men are left, the last generation; indeed, the last of our species.  The novel’s narrator is the storyteller (yes, around campfires) in the Valley of the Rocks, Nate, who discovers growing in the forest over women’s graves mushrooms that suggest that women are not entirely gone nor is the history of our species over.  A pair of men, Ted and Thomas, are going to have a baby.

What is the right approach to bring readers into this experience?  What belongs on the page?  Showing?  Telling?  Whiteley opts to give Nate an elevated perspective.  He is as much sociologist and historian as storyteller.  Here is how he looks at the coming radical change:

For the birth of this baby will be the miracle that will unite us once more.  The line draws its strength from its invisibility.  Nobody wants to talk about it and I am forbidden to mention it, so the line grows stronger and stronger.  William, Eamon, the farmers, the older men: they all think there will be no baby and they hate the idea that there could be hope.  Because hope takes the form of a joining rather than a continuation.

 We will meld to grow.  Part human, part Beauty.  Could anything be more wonderful, more terrifying?  The offer of salvation in the form of a baby who is not a baby.  I can finally begin to understand why men kill.[5] [5]

Ask me, there is a ton to unpack in that short passage.  When we readers have no context or way to exactly empathize with the people in this story world, Whiteley’s approach is cerebral.  If we cannot feel as Nate and the surviving men feel, we can at least have a way to understand.  Whiteley’s emphasis is neither showing nor telling, but explaining.  Her effect is not to immerse us, nor is it to hammer us, but rather to make us think.

That is her intent, I believe, and passages like the one above make it impossible not to set down her book for a moment and contemplate, wonder and see ourselves anew.

How You know

So, how then do you know what belongs on your pages?  How much is too much?  How much is too little?

Perhaps the glib advice—as much as it takes—now makes a little more sense.  It starts with knowing your intent, which is to say what you want your readers to think, feel and experience.  If you know that then you have a measure by which to weigh the words.  Is what you’ve set down in this line…and that one…and that one…contributing to the effect you want to have?  Are you immersing us, or chilling us, or making us think?

If you want to immerse us, a good deal of interiority is not amiss.  If you want to give your readers a visceral experience, strong action delivered with a bit narrative distance can work well.  A story of strangeness can grab us by the brain, objectifying the impossible and making room for us to take in what we cannot fathom.

None of that is absolute, there are many approaches—fiction is an art form—but what belongs on the page is what works on us as readers and causes us to experience what you want us to experience, feel what you want us to feel, and see what you want us to see.

Timeless storytelling is neither short nor long, and does not make narration choices based on fashion or rules.  It simply does the job at whatever length it takes to do it—no more and no less.

How do you decide what belongs in your novel—or not?  What have you read in the work of others that belongs—or doesn’t?

[1] [6] http://www.marienbadmylove.com/ [7]

[2] [8] www.eastoftheweb.com [9]

[3] [10] Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman, © 2007 by André Aciman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[4] [11] I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane,© 1947 by E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.

[5] [12] The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, © 2014, 2018 by Aliya Whiteley, published by Titan Books.

About Donald Maass [13]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [14]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [15], The Fire in Fiction [16], Writing the Breakout Novel [17]and The Career Novelist [18].