How many words are in a short story? What is the ideal length for a fiction novel? How long should my book be? Find the answer to these writing questions here.
There are six main types of fiction writing forms. These six categories are flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, novel and epic. The length of your writing determines which fiction format your story falls into. The average word count, or typical length, for each fiction writing category is listed in the image and table below.
When it’s time to finally start writing and shaping your ideas into an actual story, you must choose what form your fiction writing will take. If you have already completed a short story, or are part-way through a novel, then you must still check that your chosen fiction form matches with your writing goals.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”– Terry Pratchett
Look back over your writing, or think back over your daydreams, have they been of a short story, or flash fiction? Or do you have enough of a story arc and plotline in your notes to fill the average word count of a full length novel?
Understanding the main fiction forms is important because the depth of your ideas helps you choose the length your writing goal. When writing prose fiction, authors generally choose their goal from one of six formats:
Flash fiction is a very short body of work, with a word count sometimes as low as a few hundred words. The average length of flash fiction in the world of writing competitions is around 500 words.
It’s very rare for a book of flash fiction to be published. However, there are many online magazines and article sites dedicated to this form of writing.
Flash fiction is writing in the form of a snapshot of a single intriguing event, with very few characters, usually taking place within one setting. Flash fiction must still retain the beginning, middle and end elements of a full length story, including plot and character development, within a strict word count.
Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian and Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House are both great examples of flash fiction.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”– Toni Morrison
Short stories are one of the most popular forms of writing and I have enjoyed publishing a number of short story collections. Short story competitions vary in length, but the average short story length is between 2,000 and 3,000 words.
A short story is a writing form that retains much of the same structure as full length novels, but in a condensed format. The reader needs to be dropped straight into the action and every sentence needs to drive the story forwards. Short stories still have plot and character development, within a self-contained theme.
It’s sometimes helpful to think of a short story as a single self-contained episode within a full length novel series. Think of a TV series that you enjoyed, and a particular episode you loved? Normally our favourite episodes drop us straight into the action and keep us gripped throughout, and a short story should do the same.
Short story collections are extremely popular on Amazon, but are less sought after by traditional publishers, who prefer full length novels.
There are numerous short story contests and you can find a huge list of the best ones on this very site:
As well as my top tips for winning writing competitions:
A novelette is generally considered to be a manuscript between 7,500 and 19,000 words in length. There isn’t a huge market for the novelette story form, so it’s incredibly rare for traditional publishers to seek out this length of work.
However, two very famous awards, the Hugo Awards and the Nebula Awards, provide opportunities to writers of novelette length science-fiction stories.
A novelette is a short writing form. Sometimes known as long short stories, or short novellas, novelettes follow the same story structure as full length novels, but with a much shorter word count. Containing plot and character development, novelettes tend to deal with light-hearted or whimsical story themes.
Novelettes present short story writers with the option to tell a longer, stand alone story. And for novel writers, novelettes offer the chance to practice focusing their work on the details that really matter, within a much shorter framework.
The Call Of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft is a great example of a successful novelette.
A novella is considered to be writing between 19,000 and 50,000 words in length. Similar to a novelette it will contain fewer fleshed out or elaborated elements than a full length novel, but still retains a similar structure in terms of plot and character development.
A novella is a concentrated form of writing, originally designed to be read in a single extended sitting. They focus the story and plot events of a full length novel into a shorter format, and allow a short story to be expanded into richer detail.
The majority of novellas explore a single conflict, rather than pursue sub-plots. Character development is also normally reserved for the main protagonist. This creates a quicker pace for the story arc.
Animal Farm by George Orwell, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all began life as a novella. This shows the impact that a well-written novella can have.
With the rise of ebooks, particularly on Amazon, novellas have a thriving readership. Like novelettes, there are Hugo and Nebula awards for novellas, as well as a number of other established awards and competitions.
The novel is the most popular form of writing and the most sought after by readers, agents and publishers. While anything over 50,000 words can be considered a novel, you should probably aim for between 75,000 and 90,000 words for your first novel, if you are looking to attract an agent or publisher.
There is an established worldwide market for novels in all genres and an extensive number of competitions to match. There are a number of elements that go into creating an amazing novel, many of which rely upon the skill of the author. The Aaron Mullins website and blog explore all of the most important aspects in depth, to help you become the best writer you can be.
Start with my Free Resources for Authors page.
Epics are very long stories, usually around 200,000 words per novel, often within the fantasy or historical genres. Epic novels bring great depth to world-building, with many detailed setting and locations described throughout the story. There are also numerous characters, all of whom undergo individual and group development.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin are two examples of epic fantasy.
These six core categories are the main writing formats within which we must define our author goals. But which one is fits best to your story ideas and ambitions as a writer?
Does one of the above fiction writing formats immediately call out to you? Or have you already completed enough of a word count to fit within one of these categories?
The reason word length is important is because it defines how much ‘story’ you can fit into your goal. Your target word count will affect how many characters you introduce, how much back story is required and many other aspects of your writing.
Therefore, when starting out, it helps to choose a goal that matches your writing ambitions from the start. You may even have a writing competition or literary magazine in mind, many of which have fixed word lengths for their submissions.
“A word after a word after a word is power.”– Margaret Atwood
Typical word counts are designed to help structure your writing. You’ll have just the right amount of each element present within your chosen length to create a fantastic story.
Writing to a typical word count also helps to focus the mind with a clear goal in mind, which improves motivation and increases our enjoyment of writing as we see clear progress towards our final product.
From an external perspective, readers and agents also tend to look for specific writing forms when choosing what to read, or who to represent. So writing to the average word count one of these six recognised writing forms allows you to be classified and recognised within that particular format.
However, once you embark on a writing goal, remember that they are not set in stone. When writing flash fiction, you may generate new ideas that mean your goal changes to a short story. This is fine and is a natural part of the creative writing process.
Note: I recognise that there are more writing forms, such as Microfiction (stories under 250 words) and even Six-Word Stories, such as Ernest Hemingway’s “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” All of which are fun to write.
Good luck, whichever goal you choose!
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Aaron Mullins (@DrAaronMullins) is an award winning, internationally published psychologist and Amazon bestselling author. Aaron has over 15 years experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors and publishers. He started Birdtree Books Publishing where he worked as Editor-in-Chief, partnered with World Reader Charity and taught Academic Writing at Coventry University. Aaron’s book How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide for Authors has become a staple reference book for writers and those interested in a publishing career. Find out more.