Fiction Style Guide Part 2: Story Length

Photo by Flickr user   Andrei.D40

Photo by Flickr user Andrei.D40

So you’ve read my Fiction Style Guide Part 1: Literary or Genre Fiction, and have decided which style you want to write in. You’ve heard, thought, or crafted some minor idea in your mind and you’re relatively sure that someone out there beside yourself will enjoy it as well. What’s the next step? Should you just sit down and start writing? Sure, this isn’t a horrible place to start. Sometimes the easiest way to get moving is to do just that, start. However, to write something successful, you not only have to know what the story is, but the manner in which you will tell it. Every writer writes, but we don’t all write the same. For instance, I started as a short story, literary fiction writer. It’s important to clearly define these two aspects of your storytelling process from the very beginning. Am I writing literary or genre fiction, and how long should it be? Here we will cover the second of these two important questions you should be asking yourself from the start. Just how long should my story be?

There are four basic types of fiction based on length. While the lengths and numbers I describe here are the subject of some debate, it’s important to know that when submitting stories for publication, one of the first things an agency notices is length. It’s common that the shortest and longest works are often the most rejected.

Flash Fiction: A flash fiction story is any piece of narrative fiction under 1000 words. This is an area where I have little personal experience, but is excellent if you plan to share your work in a public venue such as an open mic night, or through a magazine or book that comprises the flash fiction work of many different authors.

Photo by Flickr user dalcrose

Photo by Flickr user dalcrose

Short Story: While the short end of the short story barrier is easy to define; anything over 1000 words; it’s the upper barrier where much of the story length debate rages on. Some places you will hear that short stories should not be longer than 17,500 words, while others will stretch that all the way to 30,000 words. In my own experience, if you’ve decided that you are going to write a story that is short in length, its important to focus on two things: Keep it as short as you possibly can without losing any important elements AND determine where you plan to publish or share that work. Obviously, if you plan to submit your story to certain publications, you will have to meet their word count and story length guidelines. The average short story translates to between 5 and 25-30 pages.

Photo by Flickr user Simon Zirkunow

Photo by Flickr user Simon Zirkunow

Novella: The novella, while seemingly an easier form of fiction length to adhere to, most authors find that it’s just long enough to get you moving, but never quite long enough to fully flesh out the story you’re working on. As with the short story, the boundaries of this fiction form are widely debated. Of course, depending on how you define the upper boundary of a short story, you will conversely find the lower boundary of your novella. Usually, anything between 17,500 and 50,000 words is acceptable for a novella, however many people agree that between 20,000 and 40,000 is a more acceptable range. Either way, keep in mind that novellas seem to be a dying breed, and so choosing to put yourself in this length constraint from the beginning may not be the smartest move.

Photo provided by Flickr user alain l'étranger

Photo provided by Flickr user alain l’étranger

Novel: Ahh the novel! This is the easiest area of length to define. Anything over 40,000 or so words can be considered a novel. The final length of your novel should be dictated be many different factors: When you’ve actually finished telling the story, your genre type, etc. Do not go overboard! This is very important! You don’t have to write the 565k plus words of an Atlus Shrugged or the like to write an effective novel. The average beginning novelists work falls somewhere around 90k to 100k words; this is roughly 300 double spaced, typed pages. Also remember that the more you type, the more expensive it comes to bind and print the finished project, so for many of you who are looking to publish through a traditional publisher, this is something that they look at.

While the idea of having to constrain yourself to a set length seems daunting at first, if you avoid making this determination, you could very well find your story in limbo. For most of you out there, the novel will be the place you WANT to start and I won’t be the one to tell you not to. I will however caution you against it for a quick moment. Hear me out! If you’ve got an idea so fully fleshed out that a novel is the only way it will come to fruition, by all means, start with a novel. But, for most of you writers that are just getting started in the craft, it might be smarter to start with some short fiction. Starting small will allow you to get a large grouping of styles and stories out of that mind, allowing yourself to begin finding your own voice a little faster. As in most aspects of life, it’s through trial and error that we become veterans of any craft; writing is no exception. Rather than plowing your way through hundreds of pages of your fantastic novel idea, only to get frustrated with your lack of voice and experience half way through, allow yourself the time to develop the natural way and then move to that big story idea a little later. You can save yourself a lot of headache and possible loss of motivation this way.

Write on Writers!

What length of fiction do you prefer to write in? Have any tips? Leave a comment below and let us know!


6 responses to “Fiction Style Guide Part 2: Story Length

  1. Pingback: Fiction Style Guide Part 1: Literary or Genre Fiction | The Write Subject·

    • Thanks! Excellent idea. I wasn’t originally sure whether I wanted to be all-encompassing, but I think I agree with you about adding. Will do so soon!

  2. Short stories are my favorite to write, but novellas are my favorite to read! They are so rare and wonderful when done well. “Desperate Characters” is a good one. Also, I love “The Mezzanine.” I took a whole class on the novella in grad school.

    • I’ll have to check those out. I haven’t read a novella in a long time.
      I’ve been primarly writing short fiction for a good while now and I’m trying hard to get on the novel band wagon.

  3. Pingback: Fiction Style Guide Part 3: Point of View | The Write Subject·

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