One of the side effects of the modern ebook era is that the term “book” has pretty much lost all meaning. A book can be virtually anything when it’s published in an ebook format, because there’s no need to worry about printing and binding and all the things that come with a physical copy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to gatekeep books – this is a good thing for authors, since it frees up a lot of creative space, especially in the self-publishing world.
However, it does mean a lot of nuance is lost, and certain formats are poorly understood.
Let’s break them down and see what the various types of stories are and discuss what you should know when you set out to write them.
Microfiction: Anything under 250 words.
Microfiction is a very, very difficult genre to do well. Perhaps the most well known example is “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.” The author is unknown, although it’s falsely attributed to Ernest Hemingway. (The earliest source for a story like this is the May 16th, 1910 edition of the Spokane Press, which contained an add referenced in “a local paper” as saying “Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.” It was not referred to as fiction, but seems to be the ultimate source for the now famous “For Sale” story.
The goal of Microfiction is to get across a complete story in as few words as possible. The “For Sale” story illustrates perfectly how this works. We don’t know who wrote the ad, we don’t know anything about them – but we can imagine their grief in writing those six words. It gets across a lot in a short period of time.
If you want to write Microfiction, I’d suggest having a complete story in mind, then cut it down to its most powerful, core elements. Then cut out additional details. Keep cutting down until all you have is a nugget, a story in a tiny space that can break a heart.
Short story: 250-7,500 words.
Some sources classify 100-1000 words as Flash Fiction, but since Flash Fiction is also referred to stories written under certain time constraints, I’m just merging them into a single entry here. The rules are pretty much the same either way. A short story is something you’re sure to have read at some point in your education – a story that is contained in under 7,500 words. Short stories often cut out a lot of what you expect in a longer work. If a character undergoes an arc, it’s typically a single character, since the format doesn’t allow for too many characters to arc well. If it’s genre fiction, it’s either set in an established world it expects the reader to be familiar with, or a bare minimum is spent on worldbuilding, because otherwise you’re just writing a setting encyclopedia entry.
It’s tempting to treat a short story as the skeleton of a full novel, but that’s not the best way to write one. If you strip a novel down to its bare bones to cram it into 7,500 thousand words, you’re going to find yourself with something bland and uninteresting. It’s also tempting to treat a short story as a single scene from a novel, plucked out and put on its own. That can work, but very often will read the reader lacking context.
A good short story gives the reader just enough information to know what’s going on, and just enough texture to be meaningful. The best analogy I have for a short story is an appetizer: you want just enough to be pleasant, but it doesn’t need to satisfy everything. If you’re writing short stories, you’ll want to master the art of implying details without needed to outright state them. It’ll save you a lot of space, and in this format is often more enjoyable to the reader than being told what they’re looking at.
Novelette: 7,500 – ~20,000 words.
Now we’re getting into the longer works. This is the beginning of the range where I personally spend most of my time – I rarely write anything worth publishing under 10,000 words, although writing more short fiction is a personal goal of mine. We’re also at the point where ranges start getting fuzzier.
When researching for this blog post, I saw a huge variety for shorter fiction. I’ve often seem novelettes omitted entirely, with the lower portion of their word count range bundled into short stories and the upper portion shunted over to novellas. I’m including the novelette because, unlike flash fiction and short stories, I do think the formats are different enough to justify being considered separately – although I wouldn’t adhere to this word counts strictly for defining them. In my personal opinion, the biggest dividing point between novelettes and short stories are breaks. If the story is broken up into chapters or separate parts, it’s a novelette. If it’s not, it’s a short story.
Again, that’s just my opinion. Various sources define these things differently. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have a cut off point for novelettes at 17,499 words, just for example. It does make sense that they of all groups have a strict definition for novelettes, because a lot of genre short fiction lives in novelette territory. Novelettes allow more space for world building and a wider cast of characters than a short story. It’s also the point where you start seeing the traditional three act structure of set-up, confrontation, and resolution being clearly delineated. (In shorter works, the set up is often heavily truncated or woven into the confrontation to save space. Sometimes the resolution expands to cover most of the story, or other times it’s cut down to focus on the confrontation.)
If you’re writing a novelette, you should apply some of the lessons from short stories – imply where you can, weave exposition into background details where possible, a trim off anything that isn’t strictly needed to advance the story – but you have a bit more room to breathe. You can have more major characters with ease, you can have two character arcs, you can spend some time on worldbuilding. Rumors, at 16,735 words, is a novelette under this definition.
Novelette is also the minimum length most works need to be for a print book to be made and not fall apart. Shorter works, when published, would resemble a pamphlet more than a book. That’s not a judgement thing, that’s just a physical limit.
Novella: 20,000-50,000 words.
Novellas are probably the most misunderstood of fiction categories. In fact, the inspiration for this blog post came form a conversation with fellow author Casey White, where we were talking about the pros and cons of breaking up a novel, which lead to a discussion of novel length. (I’ve had similar conversations with my editor before as we discussed books and how the term has evolved, but the conversation with Casey is what made me realize there was a post to be had in breaking things down.)
If you’ve read traditionally published books, you’ve probably read either novellas or novels – its generally not worth it for traditional publishers to spend the money on physical copies for anything shorter. This is the length that most people think of when they think of ‘books.’
A lot of authors treat Novellas as nothing more than condensed novels, and there’s some merit in the viewpoint, but it’s not exactly the same. Novellas compared to novels is best understood by the difference between episodes of an episodic TV show and movies – you can technically condense a movie into a single TV show episode, but a lot would be lost in the translation. Conversely, you could extend a single episode of a TV show into a move, but you’d end up with a lot of extraneous details you don’t need.
I’ve found that, for me personally, the best rule of thumb is this: if the book is going to focus entirely on one character going through a rather straightforward story or arc, it’s going to end up a novella. If it’s going to have multiple main characters or a story that twists and turns on itself, it’s going to be a novel or series. That’s not to say you can’t tell a complex story in a novella! You can tell a complex story in any format. But doing it in a novella requires an economy of words that I personally struggle with.
Novellas offer two major advantages over novels: they require less of a time investment on a reader, so people are more likely to pick them up and finish them if they know nothing else about the story, and they can be written in less time, making them perfect for serialized storytelling.
Novels: 50,000-150,000 words
Things get much fuzzier here in terms of length. I chose 50,000 words for a novel because that’s the length prescribed by NaNoWriMo, which has worked the 50,000 length into the public consciousness as the minimum for a novel, but most published novels tend to end up being at minimum 70,000 words. (50,000 words is more typical for young adult works, but even then it’s a bit short for that genre.) The upper bounds of a novel are often given as being a bit lower than 125,000 words as well, but I mainly write genre fiction, which tends towards longer word counts for individual books. Weird Theology clocks in at 113,000 words, which puts it on the upper edge of novel territory.
For a comparison almost everyone knows, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone comes at 76,944 words, and the longest book of that series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the longest work in that series, clocks in at a whopping 257,045 words. [Source].
We’ll talk about books at that size shortly.
Novels offer a lot of space to work with, and they’re what most people I’ve talked to imagine one day publishing. However, you don’t need to extend your book to reach some arbitrary word count. If you find your novel is dragging on in places just to make the length you had in mind, consider cutting it down to a novella – or adding elements that flesh out the story more.
The biggest advantage novels offer over novellas is you can spend more time on things that don’t directly impact the plot. You can tell the entire story of The Fellowship of the Ring without Tom Bombadil – in fact, Peter Jackson did exactly that – but the addition of the character fleshes out the world more. In a novella, you’d have to cut that detail out to keep the book short enough. It also allows you to focus more on multiple characters going through organic arcs, and gives you the space to really flesh them out. The biggest advantage it offers compared to the next category is that a novel is not too intimidating for a new reader to pick up.
Epic: 150,000-~300,000 words.
This is the space many genre books live in. There’s some debate on if epics are a separate category from novels, but I feel the extra words do change things enough to talk about them separately.
Epics have the freedom to go into more detail than even a novel would allow. You can spend time fleshing out individual characters, settings, and details that you’d have to gloss over in even a novella. This is the range a lot of genre fiction lives in, especially pieces written prior to the 2000’s, because it lets the author spend a ton of time on fleshing out characters and settings as much as they want. In the past couple decades, there has been a push towards cutting those books down into shorter works or cutting them up into series, but Epic fiction is still being published, and still is popular among a certain set of readers.
Once your book crosses about the 150,000 word threshold, it’s going to be fairly intimidating to a new reader to pick up – unless they already love longer works. If you’re setting out to write an Epic, then hats off to you, you beautiful, brave bastard. You’re giving yourself an enormous task, but if you can pull it off, you’ll have something truly impressive.
I’d strongly suggest against trying to make your first few books an epic. If you’re a newer author, convincing anyone to take a chance on something of that length is going to be an uphill battle all the way.
The exception to this is if you’re making the sequel to an established series. There’s a reason Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be over 250 thousand words – at that point, Harry Potter was basically a household fixture across the English-speaking world, and J.K. Rowling could have published a book of any length and sold millions of copies. However, if you’re a newer author, you should probably think twice before writing something this long, even as a sequel. Instead, you should consider breaking it up into a…
Series: 300,000+ words.
So, i want to start off by saying you don’t have to break a longer novel into a series. Several well known books – The Stand, War and Peace, Les Miserables, Gone with the Wind – clock in at over 400,000 words. However, if you have the kind of presence needed to publish and market a book at that length, you’re probably not reading my blog. If you do and you are reading my blog…Hi, incredibly famous person. I’m honored you’re here.
But if you’re a newer author and you find your book is going up to this length, you should absolutely consider cutting it into a series. A novel of this length is usually broken up into individual parts anyway, and as long as you give each part a clear narrative arc, they will usually work just as individual novels. It’s much easier to get readers invested in a series if the first book is only 100,000 words, because the page count will be less intimidating – whereas a 300,000 word novel will have page counts up in the 1,000 pages range, which is a turn off for most readers.
Series don’t have an upper limit on their length. You can go for as long as you want. However, when writing a series, you should still give each book a central narrative arc. One of my personal pet peeves is when a long running series releases what amounts to “filler,” where almost nothing of consequence to the overall series happens. If you find a book in a series you’re writing has very little actually happening in it, you should seriously consider reworking that book into something of more consequence.
The biggest advantage to series is that you can write them for as long as you want. It’s entirely up to you if the story ever really reaches an endpoint, or if it’s something that has endless room to grow and develop – and lest you think that a series with no end would turn off readers, I would like to remind you that Superman has been published with new stories since 1939, and is one of the most popular characters in history. However, most authors write series with an end in sight, because a single writer can only sustain new ideas for a single world for so long. It’s up to you how long it is!
The biggest downside to series is that, due to some high profile writers taking epically long times to publish the next installments of their series, readers are starting to get gun shy about getting invested in a new series before it’s been finished. I’ve bagged on George R. R. Martin before, so instead I’m going to mention Robert Jordan, who took so long to finish his Wheel of Time book series that he died before he managed to complete it. That being said, cases like that have not yet been enough to deter most readers from picking up a new series. As long as you don’t make promises you can’t keep and set realistic expectations, you should be fine.
Have your own thoughts on novel length? Let me know in the comments below!