There’s more to writing fiction than just novels. Flash fiction, short stories, novellas, novelettes…the list goes on. But what’s what when it comes to fiction length?
For the most part, you don’t need to worry about strict word counts for your writing. Write what it takes to tell your story completely, but without filler and fluff. Boom—you’re done.
Sometimes, it takes only a few words to tell a full story (think about the famous example of “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”). In other cases, the complete story takes several epically long books to fully explore (Game of Thrones, we’re looking at you). The key is to be comfortable enough with your writing to know when to stop and how to get there…and not to stop too soon or too late.
However, for marketing purposes and when selling fiction to certain markets like magazines or anthologies, word count matters. Awards, too, often categorize fiction by how long it is.
Let’s take a look at some generally accepted definitions of fiction lengths and how they might fit into your overall writing career.
Microfiction and flash fiction are the tweets of the fiction world. Some sources break this up into two categories: microfiction is 100 words or less, and flash fiction can have up to 1,000 words. More often, though, anything under 1,000 words is considered flash fiction.
This is the type of writing that used to be hard to sell in a professional market. Traditionally, most fiction magazines and anthologies haven’t actively sought out flash fiction simply because it is so short (though that’s starting to change, especially with online ‘zines).
But it makes a great addition to a writer’s arsenal for exactly that reason. Super-short fiction forces you to work within constraints, which can push your creativity and force you to be more conscious of your word choices and style decisions.
Plus, it’s often pretty quick to write (though working within strict guidelines is far from easy), which means that you can offer free flash fiction on your blog or to your email newsletter readers. This is a terrific way to whet readers’ appetites for your longer works or get them interested in the plot of your next book.
Short stories are often defined as any story under 7,500 words. These are the short works that literary publications tend to publish most often—magazines like Clarkesworld, Ploughshares, and Carve welcome short stories, though they sometimes publish longer works as well.
This length is sometimes considered the “sweet spot” of shorter fiction—done right, stories between 3,500 and 7,500 words are long enough to feel really well developed but short enough to devour in one sitting. This is a great category to explore if you’re looking to build your readership through magazine submissions, 99-cent digital shorts, or free giveaways that feel more substantial than flash fiction.
Some markets don’t recognize the novelette as a separate category, lumping it in with novellas or “short novels” instead. However, the Nebulas, the annual award of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), include a category just for these works, defined as stories of between 7,500 and 17,500.
For a long time, this was kind of the grey area of fiction—too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel—and many people didn’t write works this long because it was almost impossible to get them published. With the rise of eBooks, though, that isn’t such a problem anymore. While readers might balk at paying for a super-skinny printed book, a 99-cent or $1.99 digitally produced tale that can be read in one or two sessions seems totally reasonable.
Novellas are frequently defined as works of fiction between 17,500 and 40,000 words long. They’re not quite novels, but they feel pretty substantial—there’s room for character development, complex plots, and more.
Literary magazines may sometimes publish novellas, and they often appear in collections or anthologies alongside shorter works. These days, novellas are starting to appear more and more as standalone published works, too.
Novellas were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but fell out of favor in the modern publishing world. Today, they’re making a comeback with many digital publishers, because it’s often faster to write a novella than a novel and they can be reasonably sold at a lower price. So readers, authors, and publishers alike love them! Readers get to read long-ish new works from their favorite authors more frequently, authors get to write and sell more pieces that explore their creative ideas, and publishers get a steady stream of fiction to publish. It’s a total win-win.
Novels are fiction works of 40,000 words or more.
Well, not so fast. Different genres have different preferences for novel length. Middle grade and young adult novels, for instance, tend to be on the shorter side, usually between 40,000 and 65,000 words. Crime fiction, westerns, and romances typically clock in around 50,000 to 75,000 words.
Meanwhile, science fiction and fantasy often runs long, racking up 100,000 to 125,000 words because of the complexity of the worldbuilding and setting description required.
In the publishing industry, 250 words is considered a printed page of text. That means 75,000 words equals 300 pages, which is just about perfect for a first novel. Any longer than 75,000 to 80,000 words and many traditional publishers start to balk, simply because it’s harder to get readers to take a chance on a really massive tome (unless, of course, you’re George R. R. Martin or Stephen King).
As an interesting side note, Amazon’s Text Stats shows that the average length of all books on Amazon is about 64,000 words.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t write more than 64,000 words! Far from it. In the age of digital publishing, we don’t need to be as concerned with shelf space and giant doorstopper books as when all books were in print and only in print. So we’re starting to see more “epic-length” works—books that are 150,000 words and up.
In general, if your fiction is running that long, you might want to look at dividing it up into two or more books and creating a series. But if you really, truly need a few hundred thousand words to tell your story right—go ahead! Readers rarely complain about getting more to read, after all.
Flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels can all have a place in the universe of your writing career. What really matters is telling a great story.
For more about developing your fiction writing career, read on:
- For Fiction Authors – How To Earn a Full-Time Income Writing Fiction Books
- What Every Fiction Author Should Know About Writing and Publishing: Key Takeaways from the 2014 Kauai Writer’s Conference
- How to Write Better Fiction and Become a Great Novelist