Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Size Matters

So you've got this great idea for a story and you've sat down, pulled up the word processor, and you're committed to making this the best story you can. The question is, how long should it be?

While talking about writing, it makes sense that sooner or later, we'll touch upon the subject of word counts. Currently, there are about five different categories for story lengths that I'm going to go over really quick for those of you who are unaware or need a reminder/refresher.

(An example of Word Count in MS Office, and a teaser treat for those of you paying attention.)

Flash Fiction - This is a little hard to pin down, as it largely depends on what the publisher is looking for. Some magazines will accept works as large as 1,000 words as flash fiction, while others require fewer than 300 or even 100 words. Of course, this also includes the trend of 2-sentence stories, which could be as few as ten words and still manage to convey a story. The point is, these are stories which can be read in a matter of minutes by the average person; little bits that allow people to break away for a moment even if they don't have much time.

Short Story - The next step up, these start where the Flash Fiction ends, right around 1000 words and go up to about 7,500 words. Most people are pretty familiar with short stories. These are the ones you generally find populating anthologies, or in magazines. With the current self-publishing movement, you can also find a supply of short stories standing on their own, either for free or at the $0.99 mark. Also, before I get much further, I'm going by the word counts listed under the category requirements for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula awards. While there will almost always be some wiggle room where word counts are concerned, the counts they suggest are fairly established and give what I think are good averages.

Novelette - Now we're getting up there. Ranging from 7,500 words on up to 17,500. Now we're getting into some meaty stuff. For an average reader, this will be a couple hours worth of entertainment. Something to read on a long bus ride or waiting at the DMV. Like the short stories, it's not uncommon to find some of these standing on their own on Amazon, but you're also likely to find a few stories of this length mixed in among the short stories in a collection.

Novella - This is finally starting to get up there. At 17,501 - 40,000 words, these are the short 'books'. Still, these are generally good for an evening or even a weekend read depending on how fast a reader you are. You can also find these as a kind of main course in a good-sized collection, where several short stories lead up to or even tie in to the final novella story.

Novel - This is a book. 40,001 words is the minimum required for the Novel category in the Nebula awards, but I do take exception to this just a bit. Most publishers won't consider a manuscript book worthy unless it is at least 50,000 words, and some require even more depending on genre. Still, I think everyone here knows what a real book requires, so not much more really needs to be said.

(See the difference in thickness?)

So now the question is, how long is your story going to be? Well, that all depends on you and your story. When it comes to you, it's a matter of writing style. Is your prose full of description and philosophical musings? Or do you tend to get straight to the point, forgoing needless details like what your character had for breakfast or what the particular shade of blue the sky is reminds him of? Of course, writing style is only going to carry you so far. It might turn a short story into a novelette, but beyond that you're probably cramming extra stuff in there to force a word count, and that is almost never a good idea. 

What really dictates a story's length is what is in the story itself. How many characters are included? How many hoops are there for them to jump through before the climax? What about side-plots? Are all loose ends tied up or are they left out there for possible future use? 

I think most of these things will be dictated by the story itself and if you listen, you'll know what to put where, and how to draw the lines. One thing I would suggest an author never does though, is to force a specific word count. Many times, forcing a book to stretch fills it with unnecessary details that can spoil the pace, as well as introduce details that don't make sense with the rest of the story. 

A perfect example of this, for me, is Rick Hautala's The Wildman. Some may enjoy it, but to me almost the entire book felt like it was a novelette stretched out to novel length for no real reason. The second to last chapter can be summarized in three lines: "I can't go on", "I wonder if I'm dead", "My body is still moving somehow." rinse, and repeat for at least fifteen to twenty pages. Seriously. It's almost literally those three lines, drawn out into paragraphs, and then repeated over, and over, and over. If that isn't forcing a word count, I'm not sure what would qualify. 

Yes, it can be frustrating when you're writing and your story suddenly seems to fall well short of what you thought it would be, but rather than trying to stretch things out, read it over, see if there's anything you forgot to add in. If so, great! If not, don't force it. More often than not, when you use force to try and make something do what you want and not what it's supposed to do, you're going to break it. There is plenty of room out there right now for stories of all lengths. Don't break your hard work trying to force it to be something it just can't be. 

~ Shaun


  1. I have several shortish works of the 30k to 40k word count range that I've contemated trying to stretch out. They are "complete" technically, but I often wonder if they could use more exposition, description, etc. When I say it like that it just sounds like adding fluff, so it really makes me question whether I should do it or not...

    Great post! Made me think.

    1. Well, remember, this blog is just the opinions of one person, but thinking is always good. Things I could recommend for your particular situation, are to step away for a while, come back, re-read it, and ask yourself afterward if there is anything more the story actually needs. Or, you could use beta readers, have them read through and see if there's anything they think that could be better explained or described.

      It can be frustrating when you sat down and thought you were writing a book of 50 - 60,000 words and you find it coming up short. Especially if you're only short a couple thousand words or so. But we have to do what is best for the story, because what's best for the story usually leads to better stories, which leads to happier readers who are more likely to come back to your work again.

      Glad you found the post helpful regardless. :-)

    2. I've just discovered the amazing world of Beta readers on Goodreads. I haven't been writing much for a few years (new father) and even when I was writing regularly I did it pretty much in a bubble with little outside interactions. I'm just starting to immerse myself in the internet writing community.

    3. Well, welcome to the community. I would make one more recommendation then, sign up on the forums at www.absolutewrite.com There are lots of threads for testing bits and pieces of your work and it's a better place to find beta readers. You have to remember, at it's heart, Goodreads is for readers. Absolutewrite though is specifically for writers. :-)

  2. There are some true classics at the shorter end of the spectrum that still chill today. Ones that spring to mind are:

    I Am Legend (Matheson)

    Who Goes there? (Campbell)

    1. I Am Legend is a great story and a perfect example.

      Who Goes There I haven't read, but I'll have to look it up now. Thanks. :-)

    2. Well worth a read, ideally on a cold and grey day! (Snow is better).

  3. Great breakdown of the lengths of several categories. :)

    Writers should keep their genre in mind too, of course. If you write a YA novella, for instance, the accepted work count will be shorter than for adult novellas. MG novels tend to range from 20-40k, chapter books are 8-15k.

    I've heard some authors say things like how the story they want to write is actually novella-length, but they want to add bits and pieces until it's novel-length, so they can get a print version. I think that's silly. If the story you want to tell will come in at 20k words, then it's 20k words. Simple as that. Don't make it longer than it has to be, just for the sake of it.

    1. A great point that I missed. Thanks. Absolutely genre and target age groups make a difference too. Even then, it's important to get the right length over a story filled with extra's. Maybe even more so, as younger readers aren't as likely to appreciate extraneous story bits like some older readers might.