Story Lengths and How They Can Set You Free

Word Count | Story Length | Story Word Count | Your story's word count can set you free and burden you. I explain how in this blog post.

Is anyone else having a hard time getting back into the swing of things over the holidays? I know I am. Sitting down every day to write has been hard, especially given it’s the new year and I’m supposed to be filled with lots and lots of new-year-new-goals-achieve-all-the-things energy.

I don’t know where I put that energy, but it’s not where I last saw it. It’s been showing up at random times, while I’ve been doing random things (like organizing our Tupperware cabinet or sorting my email), and I can’t say it’s always the things I wish it would show up for.

Something that’s really been sticking with me lately is how important it is to write something every day. And not just because I wrote an ebook about it either. I want to write more this year (this sentiment is echoed by writers all over the world) because I want to become a better writer. Reading good writing is also on my list, and I’m banking on those two practices to improve my writing.

But what are we to do when the new-year-energy isn’t giving us that nice running start towards our goals that we always hope it will?

You know I love a good self-reflection, but to answer the question of lack of new year energy, an examination of story lengths is actually what will give us that running start towards writing all the things.

I know it sounds like a weird place to start but stick with me.

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

This quote is by Ray Bradbury and it has me reexamining how I write the stories I want to write, and the length needed for them to truly portray what I want them to portray.

I so often get caught up in what I’ll call the “NaNoWriMo Mindset”: essentially, if I’m not writing a 50,000+ word novel, then my writing is subpar, my story is fleshed out enough, my characters are two-dimensional, and my dialogue choppy.

But here’s the thing: Some writers are succinct, some writers are verbose, and some are in between. No one is better than the others and different readers prefer more succinct or more verbose stories. Some readers love endless book series, some readers like a quick novella, and still others like something in the middle.

As a writer, this is refreshing. If you get stuck in the mindset (like I tend towards) that a story isn’t significant unless it’s over 50,000 words and written in a month, it’s comforting to know that some stories just don’t need to be told that way.

Some stories are best told in 1,000 words. Some stories are best told in a million words.

But all stories are meant to be told, regardless of their word count.

Can I get an “Amen” for that?!?!

And because it’s always helpful to know what boundaries we’re working within, here’s a breakdown for you to explain the different lengths of stories, and hopefully free you up to write your stories the way they need to be told.

Not how the “NaNoWriMo Mindset” says you need to tell them.

Short Story

1,000 – 7,500 words

These are the stories you’ll see in magazines, anthologies, etc. Short, straightforward, and easy to whip out in a week. Write 500 words a day for a week and you have a moderately long short story, just as Bradbury recommended.

Novellette

7,500 – 20,000 words

This is considered a bit of an awkward length, so you’ll find these compiled with two to four more stories of a similar length in one book. Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man is a good example of this.

Novella

20,000 – 50,000 words

Novellas have steadily grown in popularity in recent years, thanks to e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes and Noble Nook. A novella is a quick read that still delivers a fully fleshed out story. This has become a bit of a lucrative practice for many writers who publish their novellas as e-books while they work on other projects.

Novel

50,000 – 110,000 words

The typical NaNoWriMo novel starts here. A novel is, of course, your fully fleshed out story, complete with back stories, plot twists, secondary characters, and normally, plenty of action. If you’re looking to publish, aiming for the ballpark of 75,000 words is your best bet.

Epics

110,000 words or more

Game of Thrones. The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. These are your book series, with casts of three-dimensional characters, incredible locations, and plenty of dialogue, action, and a normally, a killer plot.

Most writers have a desire to publish something in their lifetime. Whether it’s a book of poetry, a YA trilogy, the next great American novel, or an anthology of short stories, there’s really no limits to how long or short a story can be. A good story isn’t dependant on its word count or on its ability to sell itself to a publisher.

Those traits help of course. But if you’re goal this year is to write more and write better, than don’t worry so much about the parameters and focus on telling the story, no matter how long it takes.

Just tell the story. Take comfort in telling the story.

And when I’m looking at my New Year’s resolutions and wondering if I’ll ever actually get around to editing my novel so it’s a little more presentable or if I’ll actually publish those two novellas this year, knowing that I don’t have to write the next Game of Thrones series is actually quite the relief.



Alexis Truitt

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