How Long Should My Story Be?

Open book on stack of closed books

What’s the right length for a story?

One way to answer to that question is to categorize the story by type. If it’s a short story, then it’s under 7,500 words. If it’s a novelette, it’s between 7,500 and 17,500 words. Novellas fall in the 17,500-to-40,000 range. And novels are anything over 40,000 words.

I’m very fond of the novella length. There’s enough room to fully develop characters and setting, enough room to allow for more than one event in the story. I have 5 novellas currently published (plus 2 novellettes that are barely short of novellas), and I’ll undoubtedly write more.

But right now I’m working on a novel. How long should it be?

In traditional publishing, YA novels are usually 80,000 words. But Tally the Betrayals is not a YA story. Its protagonist is a 38-year-old suffering from troll-disease who controls the supplies of copper, tin, and bronze in the “dark tower” of my North-lands. I expect that teens will enjoy Tally, but no more so than adults.

Traditionally published mainstream fiction often goes for about 100,000 words. And doorstopper fantasy novels can hit 200,000 or even 300,000 words apiece.

By now, some of you may be longing to tell me that my question is a trick question. And you’d be right, because indie writers like myself have much more freedom in choosing the length of our stories.

Traditionally published writers have to hit the word-count specified in their contracts. If a story is coming in long, the writer must chop it until it fits, never mind what that does to the quality of the work. If the story is coming up short, then a loop must be added in order to fill the word quota.

Dean Wesley Smith, a talented and experienced writer from whom I’ve taken many workshops, and from whom I’ve learned an incredible amount, has been known to say that a story should be exactly as long as it needs to be. I agree with him!

So why is this topic on my mind?

I noticed that when I reached 40,000 words on Tally the Betrayals, I’d just started the 7th chapter of the book. My outline possesses 19 chapters. So, if the chapter lengths are not too disimilar, 6 chapters should equal roughly one-third of the book.

Tally outline scrap

(No spoilers in the screen shot above. All the good stuff is in my head and on the manuscript page. I was lucky in that this bit of the outline possesses merely some notes on where and when the revelations take place, so I could show it here. Other pieces of the outline are much less circumspect!)

I’d estimated that Tally would be 160,000 words, because it’s got a lot going on in it. There’s a redemption story mingled with a mystery mingled with . . . well, that third element would be a spoiler, so I won’t say. But I felt like I might need 160,000 words to tell it all.

But if the first third is comprised of 40,000 words, then perhaps the total for the story will be closer to 120,000 words.

Of course, I can’t really know at this stage. My novel Troll-magic has 169,000 words, but only 10 chapters. And each succeeding chapter is a little longer than the one before it, which means that the first chapter is much shorter than the tenth.

For a short interval, I let my math convince me that Tally the Betrayals would be 120,000 words when I reached the end. Now I’m approaching 50,000 words, and I’m halfway through Chapter 8. Math would put me on track for that 120,000 words at completion. But I’m skeptical. I just have a feeling . . . that the chapters may get longer as I go along. Or that I’ll realize that a few of those chapters should really be divided to become two chapters.

Luckily, it doesn’t really matter. I’m indie. Which means the story can be exactly as long as is right for it! 😀