Book Length Issues – Part 1

War and PeaceI receive quite a number of questions about how long a story should be and how to alter a story so that it matches length expectations. Many writers, especially younger ones, ask me how to lengthen stories. Yet, it’s interesting that I have never heard from a writer who wanted to know how to shorten a story.

In any case, how long should a story be?

That question is impossible to answer definitively. I have long believed that authors should write their stories until they bring them to a satisfactory conclusion, always keeping a good pace and never bogging down in unnecessary details.

The bottom line – The story is finished when it is finished, whether it is 30,000 words or 300,000 words.

Yet, unpublished novelists have to face market reality. If you present a 200K word cozy mystery to publishers or agents, they probably won’t even touch it. The same is true for a 40K fantasy novel. These story lengths don’t match genre norms, and first-time novelists won’t get a pass from the gatekeepers of traditional publishing.

If you hope to get a gatekeeper’s attention, you will increase your chances by keeping your story length within expected parameters. A novel in any genre is usually at least 40,000 words long, but that’s just the bare minimum to qualify for the “novel” label. The gatekeepers expect most novels to be considerably longer.

Of course, if you self-publish, you don’t have to worry about being rejected because of your story’s length. Still, remember that readers might not want to invest the time and money it takes to dive into a lengthy book if they are not familiar with the author. Your best bet is to start out by adhering to the standard length for your genre.

Opinions on book lengths are many and varied, but here are some guidelines based on my experience:

  • Among the shorter-length (60K to 80K) genres are romances, cozy mysteries, and chick lit.
  • Longer-length (80K to 100K +) genres include fantasy, historical fiction, thrillers, and science fiction. (Science fiction can also be quite short. For example, Fahrenheit 451 is about 46K words) .
  • Your target age group is also a consideration. Middle grade (8 to 12 years old) tends to run 30K to 55K with some as long as 60K. Young adult (usually teenagers) runs from 45K to 80K with fantasy titles as long as 120K.
  • For just about any adult genre, a novel that is 80K words won’t sound the length alarm, and 70K to 100K will probably also be fine, depending on the genre.

Traditionally published novels abound that don’t fall into these ranges, but such standard breakers are usually not by first-time authors. Once authors sell well, they have more freedom to write books that are non-standard in length and content.

Now to address the question I frequently receive – How do I make my story longer?

First, develop your characters thoroughly. Many young writers push a story along too quickly. They don’t allow readers sufficient time to become emotionally connected to the characters. The writers want to get to the intense action or some kind of crisis as soon as possible, perhaps thinking that the time spent in a character’s ordinary life might bore readers.

The fear of boredom is legitimate only if the writing is boring. If you begin with mystery and raise questions that the readers want to see answered, they will continue turning pages to find the answers. See this post for more on how to start a story.

Second, add a subplot involving one or more other characters. The events taking place in the protagonist’s point of view (POV) are usually not the only ones occurring. Something else is happening beyond the protagonist’s knowledge. Consider writing what an ally of the protagonist is doing, which will require writing that scene from his or her POV. Also consider writing what the villain is doing, assuming you don’t mind revealing his schemes.

When you construct the sub-plot scenes, be sure to make them relevant. The activities the secondary characters undertake should have a bearing on the protagonist’s journey. It is helpful for the secondary arc to climax at about the same time, or just before, the protagonist’s climactic event occurs. This way, the protagonist can benefit from what his or her allies have accomplished.

Third, include rest periods after conflicts. During the protagonist’s journey, he or she will run into conflicts that often bring temporary defeat. After these conflicts, the protagonist needs time to rest, reflect on the recent conflict, and plan the next move. During the rest periods, allow the theme of your story to come to the surface a little at a time. What is the character learning from the journey? These periods are a great time to explore the character’s heart.

I hope to look at how to shorten overly long stories in the next writing tip.

If you have questions or comments, please post them.

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9 replies

  1. Thanks so much for this post!! I don’t usually have problems with making my story longer. But I was recently wondering how long would be appropriate for a sci-fi/distopian novel, so it definitely helped seeing the numbers!

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  2. My books tend to be between 60 and 70K, which seems fairly appropriate for a YA novel. My sister was worrying that her book was too long at 110K for her science fiction YA novel. I sent this link to her. It’s very helpful. Thanks!

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  3. Miscellaneous thoughts:

    I usually figure it’s easier to cut something than add it.

    I think where people tend to rush off is they confuse “things happening” with “tension” and “momentum.” I was halfway through Mistborn when I realized that to that point they were mostly sitting around planning their end game (it’s basically a heist in a fantasy setting). The pacing and structure were such that every scene progressed things forward whether anything particular “action” was happening.

    My stories tend to run between 95-98k, to date. What’s nice about that consistency is I can better judge how things are progressing by the plot in relation to wordcount (30k is a third of the book; is the main plot rolling at a steady clip? If not, I probably started a bit slow).

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  4. This is a really great post–short and sweet and to the point but packed with helpful information and suggestions 🙂 I loved the bit about rest periods between conflicts. Tolkien was a master at that one.

    And it’s so true–a story is done when it’s done, no matter how many words it has! And if it isn’t done yet you just have to keep writing. That’s why I’m still on the first draft of this book I started two months ago and it’s past 76k now! I hope it’ll end soon…

    I was thinking how much great life preparation writing novels sometimes takes. I tried to take the plunge to learn to do it well four or five years ago, but I was not ready and I knew inside me that it was the wrong time, that I had other things to do first… of course I didn’t realize then what those things were… I thought they were different things… but… I feel a lot more ready now. I’ve never gotten a book past 65k before and never FINISHED one longer than about 50k (NaNoWriMo-itis). I don’t know that I know anymore what I’m doing, but I have a steadfast determination now, that I never had before. As miserable as writing this book makes me sometimes, I’m really flat out committed to finishing it, and finishing complete edits on it as well. If it takes me ten years, all the better 🙂 Then I don’t have to figure out what to do next for a while!

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  5. Great advice! My novels used to fall on the short, rushed side–but then advice from a certain somebody really jumpstarted my description, world-building, and plot issues. 😉 Now I have trouble keeping things SHORT. Your upcoming post about shortening stories would have been perfectly timed a few months ago, but of course I still welcome all the tips I can get on the subject!

    And I’m with Alyssa. It’s nice to see the approximate length for certain genres and audiences. I guess my 130k YA fantasy will be a touch over the usual length, but like you said, a story is done when it’s done. No sooner and no later.

    Thanks again for always offering us excellent tips!

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  6. I would love to read a post about cutting down longer novels. I am writing YA Christian Sci-Fi/Fantasy and am stuck around the 100K mark; would love it to be closer to 90K. I’ve been ruthless this go around (my 7th) but every time I comb through, I find more sections that need to be fleshed out. I’ve cut several useless scenes–and paragraphs, sentences, even mere words–but can’t get away from 100K.

    Can’t wait for Part 2–and hoping it will be about trimming!

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  7. Thank you so much for this post. Recently I’ve finished my novel and I was kinda getting nervous about it being too long. After all I didn’t think that a four hundred page book would be something that a agent would even consider. The chart thing you put is very helpful and I realized that my story is right in the zone where it should be with the genre and age grouping it is in. Thank you again so much.

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  8. I’m in the “too long” category. Finished my first novel and clocked in at 200,000 words. Enough to scare ever agent away. Trying to cut verses breaking into two books.

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  1. Book Length Issues – Part 2 (Making your story shorter)

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