One of the questions most frequently asked in creative writing classes is “how long is a novel/play/short story/screenplay?” And, as is often the case in creative writing, the answer is that there are no rules but… there kind of are.
There is not an official cut off word count for any of the above literary forms but the publishing industry has generally accepted average lengths. Be alive to the fact that just because your word count has hit the “magic number”, it does not follow that you are finished. Apart from the fact you’ll be lobbing off at least a third in edits, you also need be sure that you have brought all the strands of your story to satisfactory conclusion, have made your point and your character has undergone some sort of change / journey / learning arc in the process. Otherwise, to paraphrase Truman Capote, your’re just typing.
What follows is a rough guide/ballpark figure for each literary form:
The average commercial novel is 78,000 words in length; this roughly amounts to 300 A4 pages in double spaced twelve-point font. However, a novel can be anything from 45,000 words onwards. A book between 20,000 – 45,000 is usually marketed as a “novella”.
Traditionally, a short story is meant to be read in one sitting. Normally, this narrative form is quite pointed in its message, involves a single setting and few characters. A short story can be anything from 1,000-20,000 words. Writing short stories is a good way of building up your story telling skills, honing your craft as a writer and amassing a writing portfolio. Also, the short story is the literary form favoured by writing competitions. Such competitions usually look for stories in the 2,000-5,000 word bracket.
This is the short story’s kid brother. Somewhat akin to the Haiku, a flash fiction story often aims to capture a fleeting moment. It can be any thing between 100-1,000 words. Flash fiction is becoming very popular in competitions these days. Personally, I think this may be to save reading time for judges.
The standard “Hollywood” screenplay is 90 minutes long. Given the rule of thumb that one page equals one minute of movie, you should be aiming for a 90-page long screen play. Obviously, this is an approximation.
Likewise, the page per minute rule applies here too. Bear in mind the slot your are aiming for. commercial TV and radio stations will include advert breaks in their schedule – so a half hour comedy show might in fact be only 22 minutes long etc… If you have a slot in mind, time the duration of the actual show (excluding theme music and commercial breaks.)
The page per minute rule can roughly be applied to stage plays too. If a stage play were to last an hour and a half, it should be 20,000 words long and span 90 pages.
A poem can be as short or as long as you like. A haiku is traditionally 17 syllables over three line. The Iliad is 25,000 lines long. For the try outs, however, you might aim for two or three verses.
September 15th, 2011 at 22:50
My borderline YA/Mainstream novel is around 123,000 words so yeah, I went straight to self-publishing. I just couldn’t see myself parting with a word of it. Or an agent taking me on because of it.
September 16th, 2011 at 00:00
Quality vs. Quantity. The oft-neglected novella is missing. 40K-55K words?
September 16th, 2011 at 00:01
Oh – I see it IS there, I missed it. 🙂 Seems like this niche would be popular nowadays since everyone is focused on immediacy.
September 16th, 2011 at 07:49
Yup, it’s there. And yes, it is getting more popular.
September 16th, 2011 at 02:03
This is actually really helpful, thank you.
September 16th, 2011 at 07:49
Glad to hear that!
September 16th, 2011 at 11:40
Thanks for the guidelines.
September 16th, 2011 at 14:08
this is really helpful. It’s difficult to know what to class what you’ve written as if it’s not long enough to be considered a “proper” book. Good insight and practical 🙂
September 16th, 2011 at 20:52
Good info. Thanks for sharing!