Story Writing Tips: How Long Should a Story Be?

(Looking for story writing tips? On this page, I discuss the question of how long a story should be. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to more story writing tips.)

Recently, I've received a couple of emails from beginning writers who are concerned that their stories aren't long enough. How long, they ask, should a short story be?

Let's start by talking about the MAXIMUM length. If a story is more than around 30,000 words, then it starts to enter into the territory of novellas.

A very long story is likely to be harder to publish.

So what about the MINIMUM length? The answer is that there is no minimum length for a short story.

Ultra-short stories, known as "flash fiction" or "short shorts" are currently popular, and there are numerous magazines and journals that publish them. These stories might be only a few hundred words, or even shorter.

So how long should YOUR story be? As long as it needs to be.

There are different kinds of stories. Very short stories often suggest more than what's on the page. Longer stories allow for more fully developed characters, settings, and scenes.

Many beginning writers want to write stories in a longer format, but their stories keep coming out shorter than they would like. Often, the reason is that they're summarizing the story's action instead of developing scenes.

If you're having this problem, try adding some dialogue. That's a shortcut to get your writing into "scene mode".

Imagine the story's action as if you're experiencing it first-hand from your main character's perspective. Then write what the characters say and do, what things look and sound like. Help your readers to feel as if they're really there, experiencing the story's events in real time.

If you want to write successful stories, my advice is to read a lot of stories by contemporary authors and pay attention to how they're structured. It is helpful to analyze the stories by making a list of scenes. Then think about why each scene has been included in the story, what is accomplished in that scene.

If you're not sure what stories to read, you might start with some anthologies such as the Best American Short Stories series (you may be able to find these in a public library).

And what about novels? How long should they be? The answer is different for different genres.

In most genres, a novel of between 80,000 and 90,000 words is likely to be easier to publish, but there are exceptions.

Again, my advice is to read a lot of novels in the genre that you want to write and analyze how they are put together. Make a list of scenes, and think about how, scene by scene, the story unfolds.

I've also been asked about how long a novel chapter should be.

There's no one right answer to this question. While the length of a novel is partly a marketing decision, chapter length is primarily an ARTISTIC decision. Shorter chapters will tend to make the novel move faster, and vice-versa.

If you're not sure how long to make your chapters, experiment with dividing them in different places to see what works best.

For more help with planning your fiction, join our eight-week online course on story structure!

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