How long is a piece of string?

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:

 Novel

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”.

 Short Story

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.

Flash Fiction

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.

Screenplay

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.

 TV/Play

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.)

 Stageplay

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.

 Poem

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.

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About suehealy

Award-winning Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and Arts Council England. Her full-length stage plays include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s work has also been performed at the Finborough, Arcola, Hackney Attic and Sterts theatres, and at festivals including the Claremorris Fringe (New Writing Award winner), the Brighton (Sussex Playwrights’ Award winner), the UEA Contemporary European Drama Festival, Norwich. December 2017 will see her work showcased at the Criterion theatre in London. Radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has been a finalist for BBC Scriptroom 12, Eamon Keane Playwriting Prize, Nick Darke Award and the Old Vic 12 New Voices. Sue's prose has won the the Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award and has been published widely. Sue has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from juried artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. Sue is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumna. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She is currently London-based, completing a Ph.D. on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is an Associate Lecturer in Playwriting at the Universities of Lincoln and Portsmouth, and tutors Creative Writing at City Lit. She is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

9 responses to “How long is a piece of string?

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