Story Length

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. Previously, I talked about the advantages of writing short stories and participating in anthologies. Today, I’ll cover story length and the various definitions used in fiction. Later, I’ll pose a question.

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There are several terms to define works of fiction based upon the length of the story. Check a dozen sources and you will likely get a dozen different answers but here is a general consensus of story type as defined by word count.

  • Micro Fiction is a subset of flash fiction and is generally defined as any story told in 300 words or less.
  • Flash Fiction—stories up to 1,000 words (some say up to 1,500 words). Virginia Wolfe’s A Haunted House (710 words)and Mark Twain’s A Telephonic Conversation (810 words) fall into the flash fiction category.
  • Short Stories are usually between 5,000 and 10,000 words but can be defined as anything between 1K and 10K. Examples of short stories are Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway (1500 words) and The Swimmer by John Cheever (5,000 words).
  • Novelettes are works between 7,500 and 17,000 words. Consider these well-known classics. Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe (11,000 words) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (17,000 words)
  • Novellas are between 17,000 – 40,000 words. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (28,000 words) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (29,000 words) are two examples.
  • Novels are generally defined as a word count between 80,000 and 100,000. While anything above 40K can fall within the category of novel, the general consensus is a minimum of 50K words for adult fiction.

As you know there are many genres within the fiction world and there is a recommended word count for each.

  • Mystery, suspense, or thriller—70,000 to 90,000.
  • Science fiction/fantasy—90,000 to 120,000.
  • Romance novels range from as short as 50K and as long as 100K. (The larger word count is considered high-end and isn’t common.)
  • Historical fiction tends to be close to 100K words.
  • Young Adult novels—20,000 to 50,000.
  • Middle grade (ages 8-12)—20,000 to 50,000 with a shorter count for younger readers.
  • Children’s books (for ages up to seven) are usually between 1K and 10K words.

It’s important to note these are general guidelines. However, if you seek traditional publishing, you should stay within the recommended word count. Most consider anything longer than 110K too long for fiction. A notable exception is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the longest being 175K. However, epic sagas such as these are rare.

Now to pose a question. How long should your story be?

First, I’ll answer with a couple of questions. Can you tell it in 10K words? Consider a short story. Do you need 80K? Definitely a novel.

What about a story that’s already reached over 100,000 words and you’re still not finished? First, look for scenes, sections, or even entire chapters that you can cut. Watch for repetitive passages. If you feel you can’t cut anything, then consider writing a series. In my next post, I’ll cover that topic.

How long should your story be? As long as it takes to write a compelling story that will keep readers interested. Never be guilty of adding unnecessary words just to achieve a certain word count. You’ll only bore your audience. Keep in mind most people have shorter attention spans these days, so make every word count.

What’s your take on story length? As a reader, do you prefer shorter or longer books?  

72 thoughts on “Story Length

  1. I really don’t mind a book’s length as long as it keeps you turning the pages. As a new author however, I’m not a big fan of genre determining length, because while I’m writing the 2nd book in a contemporary fantasy trilogy, where the other world alongside our real world could also be considered epic fantasy, there are themes in it that are equally as prevalent, like an overarching though subtle romance theme, plus a rather consistent thriller vibe. The trilogy which was tagged magic-realism by my publisher was very hard for me to ‘genre-rise’, and needless to say, adhering to wrod count criteria was very restrictive.

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  2. I‘d love to see a curated list of great Flash Fiction stories. I often want to read something during short periods of downtime throughout my day, and something bitesized would be great. In terms of my favorite story length: I‘m tempted to say that I have a preference for novellas, but then I think of my favorite books, and—with the exception of two—they‘re all massive novels, and in most cases, I get a bit sad towards the last 50 pages and actually try to slow down my reading, savor each page a bit more, because I don‘t want the book to end.

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  4. This is so useful and genuinely fascinates me, Joan. I’ve been taking notes but I’ll bookmark this, too. We all seem to struggle with time available for reading pleasure. Like Diana, if I’m trying out a new writer I’ll opt for shorter rather than longer. I’ve discovered some great reads like this and I then know I’ll probably like the longer fiction as well.

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    • I’m currently reading two series books from two different authors (catching up on several years). One of them writes shorter novels but packs a lot into those few pages. I enjoy them because I can read quickly. However, the other author always makes me want to read more. I’m glad we have so many choices these days. Thanks for visiting, Trish.

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  5. I prefer shorter to longer novels. I won’t stay away from longer if the book looks good, but with time constraints, shorter is better for me. I enjoy reading anthologies that are short stories or novelettes, they provide several stories, and most stories can be read in one evening.

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  6. HI Joan, I’ll just add that picture books for children are not supposed to exceed 600 words per the guidelines. I don’t believe I will ever publish traditionally because of my complete distain for the modern attitude of traditional publishers. I don’t want to write to a pre-determined set of criteria, I see no purpose in that for me as I write for personal pleasure. I don’t read modern traditionally published books either. Even big names like Stephen King have succumbed to the modern trends of writing to the audience rather than telling your own story. I have only written three books, one novella (35,000 words) on YA novel (73,000 words) and A Ghost and His Gold which is 113,000 words (I think). My new novel will be about 80,000 words I think although it could be a little longer which is okay for historical novels. There is a sense of peace in deciding not to pursuit traditional publication for me.

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    • I’m in total agreement about traditional publishers. I read mostly indie authors these days, but there are a few that I still read. I used to read John Gresham. Last year, I checked out one of his books through my local library. I hated it. Not only was it different from his usual writing, but several characters were authors and he kept inferring that traditional published authors were “better” than indie authors. That did it for me.

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  7. Great post and discussion, Joan. I used to write longish books and have tried to bring them down to about 80-90K, which is on the shorter side for fantasy. I think readers are squeamish about long books these days. I know that I hesitate to pick up a 480-page novel; I just don’t have the time. One weird thing is that I’ll back away from a 480-page book, but happily pick up a trilogy with a combined 750 pages. (???)

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    • HI Diana, your comment is interesting and I think your attitude about long books and series is a popular one. I have noticed an abundance of series (often trilogies) recently and they seem popular with readers. Personally, I would rather read one book that is longer than a series unless each story is stand alone. I am sadly not a fan of series at all.

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      • That’s interesting, Robbie. I think with established writers whose work I enjoy, I wouldn’t care whether if was one 750-page book or three 250-page books. But if I’m going to try out a book from a writer I haven’t read, I’m more likely to take a chance on 250 pages. I can finish and review and decide whether to read onward versus DNF. My Dragon Soul tetralogy is available as four books, but I also combined it into one 1200 page book – that one doesn’t sell often! Lol.

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  8. This is an interesting topic, Joan. I tend to write from an outline. So I write and tell the story until it is finished. The word count is whatever I end upon. I’ve never set out with a goal. I just write until the tale has been told. I’ve read some incredible stories that ran well north of 100,000 words. I’ve read equally impressive stories told in under 1000 words. This is the magic of writing fiction. Thanks for posing such a thought-provoking piece today.

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    • I agree Beem. A well written story, no matter what the length, is enjoyable. As far as word count, I “try” to stick to the guidelines, but I’m not so focused on that as I am getting the story written. As you said, write until the tale has been told.

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  9. I like long and short stories depending on my mood. Sometimes I just want the whole story in one sitting, other times I want to get lost in a story. My usual word count for a novel ends up around 75k. My short stories vary and I like playing around with lengths but whatever it ends up to tell the whole story is what it becomes. Good post, Joan 🙂

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    • I’m currently writing a collection of short stories. I wanted them to be a minimum of 2500 words and a maximum of 10K. I’m having trouble writing short! I have one that went over 10K, but I think a lot of words will be cut in the edits.

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  10. I’ve always liked shorter novels, anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 words, but I’ll brave a heavier tome for really good writers. Elizabeth George can keep me hooked for a long time, but some long books feel like they add too many extraneous details that bog me down. It’s all in the writer’s skill if I can hang in there or not. And I’ve always loved short stories. They can say a lot in a few words.

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  11. Food for thought, Joan. I’m wordy. Pretty much everyone knows that, I think. My novels have all been longer than the recommended norm, but I’m okay with that. That happened to be what it took for me to tell the stories I wanted to tell. Some folks will like them and some won’t, but that’s true for lots of reasons, I think.

    I will confess that these days, I’ve been focusing on writing novellas, as I’m enjoying learning how to pack more into less. For one thing, they are easier for me to tackle right now, as I cope with lots of disruptive things going on in my life. Novellas probably work better with busy folks who have limited reading time, too. Personally, I like reading short stories, epic sagas, and everything in between. For me, it’s all good! 😀

    Really enjoyed everyone’s comments on this topic, too. Thanks for another great post! 😀 ❤

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  12. I understand the trend toward shorter works because of time constraints. But I like getting to know the characters, which only happens (to the extent I prefer) in longer works. I’ll read and write works of various lengths, but my preference is long. Fiction is an escape for me, and I like to immerse myself in those worlds. Longer works serve as fascinating character studies.

    Great point about genre norms. That is something I try to be mindful of when I write (though as a reader, I don’t care). Thanks, Joan.

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    • I’ve recently become interested in a couple of series, both of which have the same main character throughout. I feel like I’m really getting to know them. With one series especially, it’s nice to see the character arc over time. But like you, I enjoy shorter reads because of time.

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  13. A super post, Joan. When first starting out, I had to look up the suggested word counts for my genre. I guess I naturally fell into the counts as my experience expanded. I noticed my latest WIP wrapped at 70,000 words. I couldn’t see a way to go beyond that, so that is where it will stay. Your post assured me that it is okay since the story is complete. Well done.

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  15. I tend to move toward shorter works these days. Time is a premium for all of us. I’m still fixated on that ground between 40K and 80K which seems to be a gap. I call some of mine noveloids that fall into that group. I’ll never coin a term, but it amuses me.

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  17. I enjoy fiction at almost any length, as long as it holds my interest. I have been following several people who write 99-word stories, and I recently purchased a book of 100-word stories. I’m amazed that people can craft a story in so few words. Thanks for covering this topic, Joan.

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  18. It seems as though a lot of readers are looking for shorter stories. I can’t help but wonder if some people are so distracted by social media they have less time or the desire to read. I have never written a macro fiction. I would think that would be hard. Great post, Joe!

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    • I think you’re right, Jill. People are too distracted today and many can’t focus. I’ve never written macro fiction either. I have a hard enough time writing short stories – they always end up longer than I intended.

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  19. It really depends on whether my attention can be held with the book in question. I don’t mind long novels: as long as it’s interesting enough for me to keep reading. But, I love to write long novels.

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  20. As a reader, Joan, I have found my attention span reducing over the years, so now tend to go for shorter novels. As a writer, of mainly poetry, I am always looking for ways to reduce my word counts to the least possible. Interesting that, from your definitions, a lot of poetry could be classed as micro and flash fiction. Another take on the ‘what is poetry’ debate, maybe?

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  21. As a reader, I love to discover a long book I can settle into. I just finished reading one nearly 400K words long. My first four novels are quite long; the most recent ones are just under 100K. Apart from a few exceptional ones, I find short stories aren’t as memorable as novels. They are like brief “hail and farewell” encounters. Novels, on the other hand, are like friendships.

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