“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman
One question asked by many writers is ‘How long should my story be?’
Of course, the best answer is ‘as long as it takes to tell the whole story’, because that’s your job as a writer.
That said, although not definitive, there are typical word counts that editors, publishers and competitions will expect to see when you’re submitting work.
You’ve probably heard of the novel and the short story, but did you know that there are at least six different categories of fiction, depending on the length of the work, and that the shortest short story can be just a sentence?
Up to 100 words
The shortest form is micro fiction, which is usually up to 100 words. You might be fooled into thinking that if it’s short, it’s easy to write, but this super-abbreviated form is difficult and very hard to do well. It has become a very popular form within experimental writing, as the writer will often have to be extremely inventive to get a story across in no more than a paragraph and sometimes just a sentence. The micro fiction author will rely heavily on subtext, hidden meanings and subtle direction to bring the story alive in the reader’s head. One famous example of micro fiction is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who for a bet claimed that he could write a 6-word story that would make people cry. He allegedly won the wager with the following: ‘For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.’
Now a very popular form, both online and in glossy magazines, flash fiction is also a favourite for competitions, beloved of judges and readers alike: short, pithy, but with enough scope to tell a compelling story in a highly condensed form. It is possibly a little easier to accomplish than micro-fiction, but still tough to do well. For some great examples of what can be achieved in miniature, check out the Bath Flash Fiction Award website www.bathflashfictionaward.com
Short stories are one of the hardest forms to do well. Readers expect micro and flash fiction to be highly condensed, as there’s no time to develop characters or settings in detail, but they are far more demanding of a short story. They appear to follow the same rules as a novel, but yet they must conclude matters in a satisfying way with a fraction of the words. One of my favourites is The Last Question by Isaac Asimov. Anthologies of short stories can be a great way to get to know a range of authors and styles, like dipping into a chocolate box. Collections of linked short stories can also give the writer scope to create discrete stories which stand on their own, but when read together reveal underlying themes and threads. A great example of this is the first three stories in Margaret Atwood’s 2014 collection Stone Mattress. Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady appear to stand alone, but when read together they form a complete story.
Too long for a short story, yet too short for a novel, the novella is a hybrid that many publishers will balk at, as it doesn’t neatly fit one form or another. Nevertheless the novella has many advantages. Readers can finish a novella more quickly than a novel without speed-reading and yet compared to a short story, there’s more scope to develop characters and plot in a pleasing way. Some of the worlds greatest writers have given us memorable novellas: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are all novellas, so if this length appeals to you, you’re in good company.
50,000 –150,000 words
Whether it’s a literary masterpiece or work of genre fiction, a novel is defined by being a long, fictional narrative, which usually deals with human experience through a connected sequence of events. The writer’s task is to create a world and the people in it and to set them to task in a multitude of ways. In this long form, there’s plenty of time to develop characters and themes and for there to be satisfying twists and turns in the plot. We all have our favourites, but a few of mine are House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, Wise Children by Angela Carter, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Death’s Jest Book by Reginald Hill, and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Although very different genres, each has drawn me in, taken me on a journey and stayed with me long after the first reading. This is my definition of a good story.
Epic or Super Novel
Over 150,000 words
Some genre fiction, such as Sci-fi and fantasy will often have word-counts topping 200,000. Equally, historical fiction and sagas can take on epic proportions, and the readers like it that way. J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy comes in at a whopping 455,000 words!
Whatever the length, good fiction is about creating compelling stories and telling them well. Those new to writing and wanting to experiment with ideas can learn a great deal from having a go at micro fiction, flash fiction and shorter short stories.