Episode 021: Find the Right Length for Your Story, Pt. 3
In the last installment of our 3-part series, we’re taking a look at longer forms of fiction, beginning with the basic building block, the novel.
The sweet spot for most novels is between 80,000 and 120,000 words, but within that window, different genres have more finely-tuned sweet spots where most of their novels live.
There are a number of ways to think about categorizing novels, and we’ve already talked about different types of novels on earlier episodes of this show. I invite you to check out the following for some deeper understanding of the different types of novels.
Episode 010 | Commercial vs. Upmarket vs. Literary
Episode 006 | Genre 101
Obviously, another way to think about novels is by length. Epics (sometimes also known as “Super Novels”) tend to be longer (120,000 or 125,000 words or longer) and often features some elements from the original epics like The Odyssey and The Illiad, such as a journey and/or a quest. This journey or quest can be physical, spiritual, or temporal. There is no hard and fast number for how long these can be, but I had a hard time finding books longer than 650,000 that had found a wide audience. Prominent examples of epics include:
Most novels are stand-alones, meaning that they aren’t meant to be read as part of a collection of books and/or have no special connection to other books’ storylines. However, when two or more books are connected in some way, they become a part of a series. Series fall into two basic categories:
1 Overarching story arcs that are too big to fit into one book and require two or more books to tell the complete story. Examples include:
2 Stories which often feature the same character(s), settings, and/or themes, but contain story arcs that resolve by the end of the book. There may be some small elements of character development in the main character over the books, but the books are not required to be read in order and can usually even be read as stand-alone novels. Examples of this type include the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child and the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. In some series, a common location or theme may serve as a thread that connects the novels, but that isn’t necessary for enjoying and understanding the other books in the series. However, for some, this connection enhances the reading experience. Rachel Goodman’s “The Blue Plate Series” and Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed and Something Blue series are examples of this, along with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series.
A less common form of connected books is when a novel is broken into pieces and published in a series of chunks. Most popular during the Victorian Era (think Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), it has never completely disappeared. A few noteworthy examples in the least few decades include:
1984 – Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was first published in a 27-part series in Rolling Stone.
2004 – Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street was first published in daily installments in The Scotsman. He went on to publish the successful series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
2007 – Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road first appeared in segments published by The New York Times Magazine.
The Internet has since become the primary location for serialized fiction. Stephen King dipped his toe in the water, offering up The Plant online in 2000, before all but abandoning the form. Others embraced it and found success. Begun in 2011, John C. “Wildbow” McCrae’s self-published Worm, which logs in at around 1,680,000 words (~7,000 pages), is one of the most popular web serials of all time.
Outlets for serialized fiction have sprung up and produced work that often receives as many readers as some of the most popular traditionally published novels. Sometimes these novels make the leap to traditional publishing after their popularity gets the attention of agents and publishers. E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Gray famously evolved from an online fan fiction outlet. Readers of Andy Weir’s The Martian cold first find it a chapter at a time for free on his website. Later, at the behest of his audience, he compiled the chapters and self-published it on Amazon to be read on Kindle for 99 cents. After selling 35,000 copies in three months, the book and movie deals followed.
If you’re interested in writing serialized fiction, following are a few of the platforms available:
This wraps up the series. At the end of the resources is, once again, a table containing the ranges for the current forms of fiction. (Who knows what will emerge next?!) I hope these episodes have helped you explore different ways that your stories can find their audiences and inspired you to try a new form of fiction, whether as a writer or a reader.
Happy writing, people!
The Essential Guide for Writing a Series Vs. a Standalone Novel by Kyla Bagnall
Exploring Three Ways to Structure Your Book Series by Kristen Kieffer
How to Plan a Book Series by NY Book Editors
How to Plot a Series: 8 Steps by NowNovel
How to Write a Book Series: 6 Secrets of Success by Now Novel
How to Write the First Book in a Series by Heather Long
Robert Jackson Bennett on What Makes a Book an Epic by Joel Cunningham
What Readers Want: A Series vs. Standalone Books by Indies Unlimited
Why and How to Write a Book Series by IngramSpark
Why Your First Book Should Not Be Part of a Series by Lisa Poisso
A reminder/overview of the commonly-accepted ranges for different types of fiction.LengthSix-Word Story6 wordsAmerican SentenceOne sentence with exactly twelve syllablesTwitterature280-characters or lessHint Fiction25 words or less50-Word Stories/Ultra-Shorts/Minisaga/Dribble50 to 55 words or less (Sometimes exactly 50 words with up to a 15 character title or exactly 55 words with up to a 7 word title)Micro Fiction/Drabble100 words or lessMicrostory250-300 words or lessSudden Fiction750 words or lessFlash Fiction100 to 1,500 words (Usually 1,000 words or less)Short Story1,000 to 7,500 wordsNovelette7,500 to 17,500 wordsNovella17,500 to 40,000 wordsNovel40,000 to 125,000 wordsEpic or Super Novel125,000+ wordsSeries2 or more connected novels Unlimited words