The Length Debate

Lately I’ve been wading into a debate that I thought merited some discussion on. And as you can probably tell from the title of the post, it has to do with length. The length of different pieces of fiction, to be exact. For years, I’ve subscribed to a particular set of guidelines for fiction lengths that go something like this:

•Flash fiction: 1-1000 words
•Short Story: 1000-10K words
•Novelette: 10K-20K words
•Novella: 20K-40K words
•Novel: 40K+ words

(The definitons above are based on many self-help writing books I’ve read and on the submission guidelines for National Novel Writing Month’s online contest.)

Until recently, I had no idea that there was an actual controversy on the lengths of the various forms of fiction listed above. Some people consider flash fiction only goes to five hundred words, while others argue that a short story can’t exceed 7,500 words without becoming a novelette. Most discussion is saved for novel lengths, with many arguing that forty-thousand is too small and leaves readers feeling robbed when they’re promised a novel that turns out to be too short for their tastes.

When I asked a writing group I belong to on Facebook what their thoughts on this issue were, especially when it comes to novels, I got a number of responses. Some said that fifty-thousand was a novel, though they thought it was a short one. Others said sixty or seventy-thousand was an appropriate minimum for novel length, and a few said fifty-five thousand was a good compromise as it’s right between the lowest minimum and the highest maximum values often cited in the debate. (For now, I’ve revised my definition of novel lengths to fifty-five thousand words at minimum, both for the reasons listed above and because my work usually runs much higher than that, so it works for me.)

To be truthful though, instead of making me worry if I’ve been using a bad definition for what constitutes a novel all this time, I’m pleased that authors are having this debate, especially self-published authors. One of the benefits often touted for self-published authors is that they get to write what they want, and this debate is a reflection of that in some ways. Authors are free to use their own definitions of novels and short stories and novelettes and whatever they write, rather than having to listen to what publishers and agencies believe a novel should be. It’s just another form of the freedom self-published authors are afforded.

However if in November you want to take part in the NaNoWriMo contest and decide that the threshold they give for a novel’s length works for you, then go right ahead. You’re just as welcome to exceed it and write as many words as you feel constitutes the creation of a novel. It’s your choice.

What are your definitions for the various lengths of different kinds of fiction? Why do you think that?

17 Comments

  1. I am in the process of finishing my first novel which is approx 82,000 words in length. Up to now I have been slightly worried that this number of words may be slightly on the short side for a novel.
    However, having read your article, which is very interesting – I may say, has put a different slant on things for me.

    1. I’m glad I was able to help a little. Good luck with your novel and good luck with future writing.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    Personally I tend to think of “novel-length” as 60,000+, which leaves the 40,000-60,000 in a kind of gray zone– “short novel”, maybe?

    I think that e-books require consumers to be more cognizant of word count. With a print book you can see how thick it is, but with e-books the listed “page length” can be estimated by a number of different methods. (Cannibal Hearts was listed at an estimated 280 pages when I first published it as an e-book, when I released the print version it came to 324 pages, so Amazon updated the “estimated” count to the “real page number” count from the print edition.)

    File size can vary considerably depending on the formatting. I use very spare formatting to keep the file size low and have 382 kb for 324 pages–I have seen other novels of the same length at 500-700 kb.

    So word count is really the only real indication of how much book you’re getting for your buck. Unfortunately, neither Amazon nor B&N list word count automatically, you have to put it in the book description. Smashwords lists an estimated word count in the book description, I don’t know how accurate that is.

    1. Personally, I agree that word count is a better indicator of length than page count and that Amazon and B&N should display it. However I’m not sure the average person understands what goes into word counts. They may be intimidated by the idea of 60K words, not realizing that they read that and longer on a regular basis. That’s why these companies list page count. Even if the page size is different from book to book to book, it’s still something the average person can grasp.

      1. MishaBurnett says:

        I agree, but I think that it’s a matter of educating the reading public.

        1. That’ll take a while to do. Still, just blogging about word count is one way of educating the people. Also telling people about the word count and the page count can help, at least in my experience.

  3. I wonder if part of it depends on the genre. Have you noticed if some genres are expected to be longer in length than others?

    I’ve often wondered about the length of a book because I charge differently for a novella than I do a novel. I have been using 50K as the novel threshold. I can’t remember which website I got that from.

    One thing about self-publishing, as you mentioned, is that there’s room for flexibility. I love that. I heard somewhere that traditional publishers require a certain word count so they can charge a certain price. I’m thinking this applies mostly to paperbacks and the cost they had to make up in producing those in order to make a profit.

    1. I have noticed that literary stories are much shorter than genre stories, especially complicated genre stories that involve multiple subplots and factors or genre stories trying to create a mythology. I guess that’s because literary stories focus more on the psychology of the characters and how they react to events, while genre stories are more plot-based.

      Also, it would not surprise me one bit if publishers required word counts because of cost issues. It sounds like something they’d do. Still, it’s their loss if they pass up the next 50 Shades or Harry Potter or Notebook or whatever because it doesn’t fit their word-to-cost ratio.

  4. I think length is such a challenge for writers. I know many writers whose books run into 200k words plus. I ave the opposite issue. I tend to be direct and to the point without “unimportant” details. So, my novels usually run around 50-60k words.
    I think that a writer should tell their story the best they can. Every story is unique. One story may really need 200k words. Another may be told just fine in 50k. Lots of people obsess about word count and I wish they would/could stop. It isn’t fair to a writer to have a completed story that is told completely and then have to go back and either hack away words and paragraphs to get it to a desirable length or to add to a story extraneous details to make it longer.

    1. Yeah, I think length can be more of an obstacle to some writers, especially if they think on it too much. More writers should be counseled to not worry about how long a story is and worry more on how good a story is.

  5. I’ve always considered a novel to be 50K or more. Most of mine run from 50K to 65K. Genre does seem to make a difference. Romance is usually shorter than fantasy, for instance. It seems people are reading a lot of shorter works these days. I, personally, prefer the 50K length for a novel. That means I can read MORE books. LOL

    1. I can see your reasoning. And there does seem to be a difference in lengths depending on genre. It’s actually a subject worthy of it’s own article, or possibly even a college thesis (possibly).

  6. Wil Forbis says:

    If I see a need for new terminology it would be for books on the high end of the word count. A lot of epic fantasy type novels can get into the range of 200,000 words – four times the minimum length required for the term novel! Maybe these should be called “mega-novels.”

    1. Yeah, that’s a ridiculous amount of words. Then again, Stephen King has written books that are close to half a million words. What will we call those?

      1. Wil Forbis says:

        Money makers. 😉

        1. That would be an appropriate name, considering the people who write novels of that length are all probably best-selling authors with many titles and dollars under their belts.

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