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How Long Should My Story Be

on April 7th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on April 7, 2012

Story length has come up a lot recently, both with readers of The Editor’s Blog and with clients.

So, let’s look a bit at story length.

The short answer to the question about the length of a story is to say every story should be as long as it needs to be. It should satisfy the story setup and problem without overwhelming the reader with more words than are necessary.

Right. But what does that mean?

That means that you don’t drag out your resolution. You give each story an ending that balances the length and depth of the narrative that has come before. You don’t drag it out.

But you also don’t drag out chapters. Or scenes. Or dialogue. Or even sentences. Get the point across in the fewest words possible. Tell the reader what he needs to know and then move on.

Don’t belabor any point. Cut off scenes while they’re still strong rather than leaching out all their power with too much detail and unnecessary explanation. Make readers want more, in a good way, rather than have them wishing you’d shut up already.

If you’ve made your point, get on to the next one.

Cut out repetition. Cut out fluff. Cut out the zillions of unimportant actions between one scene and the next.

Cut clichés.

Cut out any word, phrase, character, or scene that doesn’t contribute to the current story you’re writing. That is, write one story without trying to force a half-dozen into the same manuscript.

On the other hand, put in words that flavor your passages. Give readers enough detail that your characters seem real. Their plights believable. Their goals meaningful.

Write scenes, not only summaries. Write dialogue that serves to increase conflict and move the story forward.

Write fresh phrases. Write events. Create an interesting story.

Give readers no more and no less than is necessary to complete the story.

And write with story standards in mind.

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There are common word counts for not only different genres, but for different categories of fiction. If you’re looking to go the traditional publication route, writing to industry standards is a wise choice. No, not every piece of fiction fits neatly into a typical word count, but most do. And if you’re a new author, you’ll want to use every advantage to get your fiction accepted.

You wouldn’t want a story to be rejected solely based on word count, would you?

I can lay out guidelines for story length, but keep in mind that these are guidelines, not absolutes. Check publishers for their needs and limitations before you submit to them.

Guidelines for story length

Adult

Short Story         up to 7,500 words

Novelette           7,500 to 20,000 words

Novella              20,000 to 50,000 [some say 40,000] words

Novel                 over 50,000 [some say 40,000]

——————–

Children

Picture books     up to 500 words [absolute maximum of 1,000]

Easy readers       anything from 200 to 2,500

Chapter books    6,000 to 10,000 words [even up to 25,000]

Middle grade      30,000 to 45,000 words

Young adult        45,000 to 70,000 words

Keep in mind that there are exceptions and allowances at both ends of these ranges. There are also sub-categories that could further refine these counts.

While these are general word counts, some genres allow for longer stories. Sci-fi, fantasy, paranormals, and epics allow for higher word counts in both adult and children’s fiction.

Also keep in mind audience and publisher needs. Novels that are too short might not appeal or might not fit a publisher’s needs, and novels that are too long may be rejected simply for length.

Publishers typically won’t consider a writer’s first novel if it’s too long. The maximum standard word count for an adult novel is about 110,000 words (some would say 130,000 words). Anything from 80,000 to 110,000 is common, with many novels falling in the 90,000 to 100,000 count range.

The romance genre has word count standards of its own.

Category romance      55,000 words

Single title                 90,000 to 110,000 words

There’s also a lot of variety in the mystery/thriller genre. Cozy mysteries are typically shorter, maybe as few as 65,000 words, though even that word count could be higher.

If your first novel is 145,000, 190,000, or 250,000 words, start cutting. If you intend to be published by a traditional publisher.

Or take your 280,000 word epic and make it three books instead of one.

The reality is that new writers have to prove themselves before publishers can take a chance on a long novel from them. So prove you can write a killer novel—or two or three—that comes in at 95,000 words. Then when you make millions for the publisher, offer them that 180,000 word masterpiece.

And yes, before you say it, there are exceptions. But one exception out of thousands and thousands of manuscripts isn’t great odds. Don’t handicap your chances at being published for the sake of word count.

Pick up any novel, especially those written in a different era, and you may well find a wildly different word count. Yet you are writing today, so your options depend on today’s gatekeepers and marketplace.

Note: There are different rules for self-publishing. If someone else isn’t laying out the money and their reputation for your work, you can write longer stories. Keep in mind, however, that you still have to please readers. No matter what the length, make it a great story.

 

________________________________

Both stories that are too short and too long are hard to sell. Try to keep yours within the standard ranges. Give yourself an edge by fitting in. Yes, you do want your writing to stand out, but there are some areas where standards rule. Let your characters and plot be wild and adventurous. Let your writing be bold. But let industry rules give boundaries to your creativity. Think of industry standards as the frame for your writing.

Write creatively. But do so in a way that will give others the opportunity to read your work.

Know when following rules and standards is to your benefit.

Write—and publish—your good fiction.

We can’t wait to read it.

***

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Definitions, Recommendations, Writing Tips

24 Responses to “How Long Should My Story Be”

  1. AL Levenson says:

    Another post with useful content, which I will forward to a few writer pals. I am a new follower wondering what software you are using to host your blog. It looks like WordPress. I like the clean layout.

  2. Al, it’s good to have you here. And thanks for passing on the articles you think others might find useful.

    This is indeed a WordPress blog. Self-hosted. The theme is Writer’s Quill, with a few tweaks of my own.

    I hope we see you often.

  3. Khai says:

    The best point I think you raised is “cut the fluff”.

    I’ve written close to 20,000 words into my first novel, yet one of the best things I have only just discovered in MS Word is going into full-screen edit mode. It cuts out distractions, including that little number we all love to hate: word count.

    Knowing that there is still so much to go can be daunting, but simply adding fill for the sake of reaching your desired count takes a toll on the story. By mentioning it here on the Writer’s Blog I hope other writers out there give it a go. You might be pleasantly surprised.

  4. Khai, I’m all for using whatever works.

    To turn off word count in Word’s status bar, right click in the status bar and click the word count check box. That should at least remove the visual if it’s distracting. (I don’t know if that works in every version of Word, but it should help a lot of folks.)

    Thanks for the tip.

  5. Would it be a bad idea to put characters n (par.) To indicate who is speaking

  6. Definitely a bad idea, Roderic. In short stories and novels, the writer gets to write it all out, reveal who’s doing what, through storytelling skills. That kind of shortcut isn’t used.

    If such conventions were used, readers would be forced to notice the mechanics and the underpinnings of story rather than be allowed to get lost in the fiction. You never want to point to the framework and foundation of a story—you want readers aware of events and emotion and tone. You want them involved in the story itself, not noticing what holds that story together.

    A good question. Thanks for asking it.

  7. Pinklady says:

    I’m a new writer, I have just finished writing my first novel which is the first part of a trilogy. I decided to write my story as a trilogy as it would get far too complicated if I tried to write it all as one long flow of events. Now my concern is that the first novel is only running up about 55000 words. It’s a young adult fiction and those that have read it seem to think that the length is okay but I’m worried a publisher will look at the short word count and dismiss it. I anticipate the second and third novels will be quite a lot longer. I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have. Thank you.

  8. Pinklady, 55,000 is on the low side, but at that length it still is a novel and it fits into conventions for YA.

    You don’t want to pad the story just to add more words. Consider submitting it to a few places as it stands and see what kind of feedback you get. If they tell you the story feels thin, consider adding scenes or a side plot.

  9. Taryn says:

    This is a very informative article, thank you. I feel better about my fantasy novel length knowing that it rests at about 82k words. I’ve already written the followup novel, and realize now that the story will extend into at least one or two more books on top of the first two I’ve written. I’m glad that I decided to keep the first book in the series short and sweet.

    My main concern about my first story is that it’s basically introducing the characters and setting them up on their journey – important in its own right because there is an element of romance in the story, light though it may be. I’m concerned that this is not as interesting to me, the writer, as the second book where all of the action and drama happens. I’m wondering if that means that it truly is not an interesting read, or if I’m simply used to the characters now and have moved on from that story. Perhaps I have matured as a writer in the short year and a half and have learned how to make the subsequent stories more intriguing?

    Either case, I’m not sure if this means that I need to go back and change the story, or if sometimes fantasy novels simply have slow beginnings and publishers will understand this.

    I’ve bookmarked your site and will read through it some more. As a beginning writer, I cherish every bit of knowledge and wisdom one can impart upon me, even if it means I have to re-work my ideas drastically. Improvement is my goal!

    Thanks again for your knowledge.

    -Taryn

  10. Taryn, congratulations on completing several manuscripts. That’s an achievement worth celebrating.

    While I can’t know if your first story is all setup and back story or whether, as you said, you’ve simply moved beyond that story, you’ll definitely want to determine which is true. Every story, even the first in a series, has to stand on its own. That means it has to be compelling in its own right. It has to have all the elements that make good fiction. If all the action and drama happen in the second book and little to nothing happens in the first, then you probably either need to rework the first or begin your series with the second book.

    As a book shouldn’t begin with back story and flashbacks before the events of the current story are introduced, so a series shouldn’t begin with a book of setup and back story. Every book must carry its own weight and be a strong story. This doesn’t mean that every book should feel or read the same way. But each should provide a compelling read.

    If the first book of your series is all setup, consider revealing some of that information on your website rather than as a book in the series. Or, once your series is released, consider releasing that first book (with additional material added) as a companion book, to further explain your story world and characters and their backgrounds. Release it not as a novel, but as a book of facts about your story world.

    If that first story isn’t truly an involving book, if it doesn’t engage the reader with a great plot or fascinating characters caught up in an adventure of their own, you don’t want to use it to start your series.

    I hope you’ll let us know how it goes for you and what you decide to do. Here’s hoping for your success.

  11. Becky says:

    Hi, I just began writing, mostly picture books and a collection of poems. I had a feeling that a story inside me needed to be told, so I begun writing what I thought would become a novel for middle grade readers, but fell quite short at just over 19,000 words(according to word count). I hope to make it a series. It is written in Diary format. I have told the story that needed to be told, but feel like I don’t want to add words just to bulk it up, as you have said. Would an agent even consider such a short story for that age group? I was calling it a YA novella, aiming for the 9-14yr old crowd, is that even correct?
    Any help is much appreciated. This writing business has consumed me and I do not want to give up….not yet any way;)
    Thanks for taking the time to read and reply in advance.

  12. Becky, congratulations on jumping into the writing world. I hope you’ll find success and contentment with your writing.

    That is indeed a low word count: 19,000 would pretty much be a novelette any way you look at it. I don’t know anyone publishing such short fiction as a standalone book for YA.

    Consider a publisher’s dilemma—they need to charge enough to recoup publishing costs, but they won’t be able to charge what they would for a full-length novel simply because readers wouldn’t pay the same price for a much shorter book. Yet except for the number of pages, every other cost for the publisher would be the same. Why would they go with a book that might not sell when they could easily find a book of a more traditional length?

    If you were an established author who brought a fan-base with you, that would be different. But if you’re an unknown, publishers have no reason to take a chance on you and your short book. This doesn’t mean that one might not, but you’re going to have to search out publishers producing the kind of book you’re offering.

    Or you could consider putting three continuing adventures of the same characters or stories of related characters into one volume and call the divisions book one, book two, and book three.

    Word count does make a difference with traditional publishing, so you might need to come up with a creative solution for your stories.

  13. Henry says:

    I just finished my first manuscript. I have had several people read it, all with very very positive feed back. I, however, am concerned because the word count is around 131,000 words. It is the first book of a series (4 to 5 more to come).

    I am worried that a literary agent will not even read it because the word count is high. Am I over sweating this?

    thanks

  14. Henry, you’re actually not going overboard with the worry. High word count for first novels and for the works of unproven writers is a real concern.

    I don’t mean to imply that a manuscript with such a word count can’t be sold; it can happen and it does happen. But that is rare for new authors. You’ve honestly given yourself a harder challenge with that high word count. Agents and publishers are used to first novels being bloated, filled with too many story threads or characters or events that ultimately mean little to the story. They may be primed to expect a bloated manuscript when they see the word count. They may turn it down for word count alone, because of what that can typically mean about the condition of a manuscript.

    They also know, however, that judicious editing can make a story shine. So not everyone would reject a manuscript on word count alone.

    Sometimes there are simply too many words, unnecessary words that could be cut at no cost to meaning or clarity or impact. Cutting words actually often enhances meaning, clarity, and impact.

    A writing skill that doesn’t come into play until a manuscript is finished is the ability to cut and trim, the knowledge to see how cutting will strengthen a story and allow the necessary elements a place to shine. Only experience (and the advice of others with that experience) can help a writer know what will happen when he cuts out particular passages or cuts back on certain story elements. If X is cut, what other element naturally comes to the fore? Or, if the intention is to bring out more of Y, which other element (or combination of them) needs to be minimized?

    This may not be true for you and your story, but one curse of first manuscripts is that they contain every good idea (and some of the bad ones) that the writer had as he was writing. But not every idea, good or not, is appropriate for the story that is ultimately written. So what was excellent as the opening for Chapter Two when it was written might prove to be inappropriate once the story takes its final shape or when the tone changes or when the expected ending becomes a very different one.

    Another common problem with first manuscripts is that the writer has a fierce and fervent love for all the words in them and the way he uses those words. This can make him unwilling to change even the simplest of phrases, even if changes could make a major difference, opening the story to the possibility of what it could ultimately be.

    If you didn’t cut scenes and long passages and side plots after finishing your first draft, it’s likely you’ve got sections and elements you could eliminate or trim.

    I’ll ask you a simple question—how does the current word count compare to the word count of your first draft? If it isn’t appreciably lower, I’m guessing you haven’t done enough to reduce unnecessary words. Again, this may not be true in every situation and for every manuscript, but stories, especially first novels, should get shorter with successive drafts. First drafts could and should include any and everything you think you might use. But plot threads and characters and description and dialogue should all be pruned in successive drafts until what’s left is a cohesive story with all elements working together, a story with nothing more and nothing less than what’s necessary to satisfy characters and readers.

    My advice is that you step away from your story for a couple of weeks. Don’t think about it and don’t look at it. Not even once. And then print a fresh copy, take it somewhere quiet, and read. Be honest and mark unnecessary words, unnecessary repetition, unnecessary explanation or characters or events. If events are similar, cut one. If a chapter doesn’t advance the plot or change the status quo, cut it. Combine two or three characters into one if they’re too much alike or have too little to do. Eliminate fascinating digressions that nonetheless mean nothing for the story that you want to tell.

    Cut both major scenes and little piddling words. Allow yourself the freedom to cut even your favorite lines of dialogue or description if they draw more attention to you than to the story.

    And remember to save everything you cut, in case you have the need to add it back.

    If you’ve already done this several times, if you’ve cut and pruned and snipped and altered, then you shouldn’t worry as much over the word count. If the story needs those words, if it can’t stand without them, then submit with the higher word count, keeping in mind that your path to publication might take a little longer.

    Do a bit of research to see which agents and publishers take on longer stories. Then start targeting them.

    And start work on the next story in the series. If you intend to make a career of it, you’ve got to keep writing.

    I hope this encourages you, gives you some options. Good luck and maybe let us know how the road to publication goes for you.

    • Henry says:

      Thank you for your very informative reply. I have taken several of the steps you have mentioned already, but now I am combing through to drop out any unnecessary words. If my final pass doesn’t get it below 130k, then I am going to take my chances. I am at 131,450, so it is getting close.

      I have plenty of scenes that are going into the second Novel and have about 20k written. If anything comes of it, I will reply with a future post.

      Thanks again.

  15. Henry, you are welcome. And good luck with the cutting.

  16. You say the word count for “Sci-fi, fantasy, paranormals, and epics allow for higher word counts in both adult and children’s fiction” is allowed to be slightly longer. How much longer is that?

  17. Cillian, the numbers are a bit fluid beyond these standards, but for all the adult genres you named, you may find word counts of 110,000 to 130,000. Sci-fi can go higher and true epics (even some historicals) can be over 200,000 words. This is rare and almost impossible for the first-time author, but is not completely out of the question. If you’re manuscript is especially long, consider turning it into three separate stories.

    If you’re unpublished or unknown to the publishing world, stick as close to the standard counts as you can. Once you’re successfully published, you have more leeway.

    As for children’s books, you have to consider their appeal to an adult audience. If adults are reading the books, the word count can be increased. But books in any of those named genres can support higher word counts. Think 80,000, 90,000, even 100,000 words, depending on the appeal of the book and the age it’s geared to. Again, however, the first-time author pretty much has to go with the standards. Publishers aren’t going to want to put out money for long books that are unproven. If you start a children’s or YA series and it’s successful, subsequent books can have higher word counts. Yet do keep in mind your audience. Most younger kids will not be as eager to read a long book as older teens are.

    Thanks for the question.

  18. Hi my name is peter.i have just completed a novel of a fictional biography.
    being my very first I got carried away and ended up with nearly 150000 words.
    I it is sad, funny, and reality between two societies.

    the story line in my opinion is wonderful.there are several romance and sexual encounters some serious and many comical.
    I am a story teller how do I get round my handicap of not being gramatically or spelling perfect.
    kind regards peter(writing under the name of peter tee

    • Peter, congratulations on finishing your first draft! You deserve to celebrate. After that, set the manuscript aside and find something distracting to do for a couple of weeks or a month. The best thing you can do for your story at this point is to ignore it and allow it to get out of your head. Only then will you be able to work on rewrites.

      As for grammar and spelling, start learning. Being a storyteller is awesome. But being a writer means you work on your skills, both the storytelling and the mechanics of writing.

      Take a class or two. Read some books on the craft of writing. Join a writing group where you can get some help with grammar. Join a critique group if your writing group doesn’t do critiques. The help of other writers is invaluable—take advantage of it. And offer help in return. Learning to critique manuscripts will help you with your own stories. It’ll help tremendously.

      Don’t worry, however, thinking that you have to be perfect. No writer is and you don’t have to be. But you do want to offer the best product you can put out there. And that means attention to grammar, punctuation, and all the writing rules. Learn what you don’t know.

      You don’t have to spend money, though you could. Get books from the library and check out sources online. Find a critique partner. Read a grammar book cover to cover. There are some great ones out there, and reading most of them is not drudgery.

      Trying to work without all the writing tools is a handicap, as you pointed out. But it’s an easily overcome one. Start learning the rules. And once you’ve got some of those rules under your belt, head back to your manuscript and take another pass through it. It’s likely that you’ll still be focusing on plot and character and setting and dialogue in the second draft, but you should be able to introduce changes in grammar and punctuation and rules as well.

      Also, start a Style Sheet. Write down the rules you’re going to follow and the spelling and punctuation choices you make. Then follow your own rules throughout the manuscript. Then you’ll be consistent. And that means you’ll be well on your way toward putting together a strong and cohesive story.

      I wish you the best of success as you continue to work on your novel.

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