Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Final, Definitive Guide to Word Counts for Short Stories, Novellas, Novels, and More

How many words make a novel? It's an age-old question. I have done a seriously ridiculous amount of research and have the definitive answer for how many words in a short story, novella, novel, and everything else.

We start where everyone always starts, with Wikipedia. The four-part breakdown is pretty simple. Short story to 7,500 words, novelette to 17,500, novella to 40,000, and beyond that is a novel.

Piece of cake, right? But what about flash fiction? Where's that fit? One source suggests anything between 53 and under 1000.

But wait, that same source says short stories have at least 3,500 words. Anything between 1,000 and 3,499 has just fallen into a forbidden void. That's dangerous, because nature and writers alike abhor a vacuum.

A second opinion comes to the rescue with a refinement on short stories, separating them into short-short and long-short stories. The short-short is a very awkward name, so I propose we call it the Old Mac Donald (like the farm, with a short-short here, a short-short there, etc.)

There's still some void, but it's small and containable.

A long-short is just as problematic. Using the writer's favorite tool, creative synonyms, we could call it a big short. Big Short? That's a movie! It was a book first, but with all respect to author Michael Lewis the most famous name here is Christian Bale.


 We have to add in an important pivot point in the graph. McSweeney's submissions famously said submissions of exactly 742 words used to get accepted to the site as if by magic. That golden rule is, alas, no longer true, but the magic number remains.

But that presents a logical problem, with two different lengths both called "flash". We could separate them into microflash and macroflash, but with that perfect Goldilocks zone in the middle, literary history calls out for Mama Bear Flash and Papa Bear Flash. For consistency, we also have to dump the reference to McSweeney's in favor of baby bear (we can't name the just right length after Goldilocks; she's a burglar and a thief).

Now we have some problems on the low end. The unsubstantiated story of Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," slots in nicely at six words.

Shorter than that and you don't have a story, you have a byline. As for 1-2 words, frankly, you're staring at a screen, trying to figure out how to start. You've got writer's block.

After 6, we get into a murky area. You've got a couple handfuls of syllables, but you haven't gone very far. Up to, say, 17 words, it's probably just a haiku. It's not a sure thing, but wise gambler takes the best odds.

Finally, we can get to the novel. Hand-waving everything over 40k is far too open-ended. For one thing, 40k is too short for modern times. "Old" novels might fit there, but not new novels. Heh, that's ironic. "Novel" means new. Old novels are "old-new." Who's the expert on old-new things? They Might Be Giants, with the lyric, "Old New York was once New Amsterdam."

As everyone knows, books are metric. That gives us an important milestone at 100,000+. And finally, if we've gone past 120,000, we're definitely into fantasy (or rarely sci-fi) epic territory.

There are deeper milestones. "Ulysses", at 262,869 words, makes one complete Odyssey.

By the time you've reached 350k, you have clearly (and coincidentally, since this famous author's top 7 longest novels roughly average this length) written the Dickens out of a book.

When we reach the length of "Gone with the Wind" I think it is frankly safe to say we have given a Damn.

Beyond that, and I admit I'm getting tired here so I'm going to stop with the fancy naming and just let the titles speak for themselves, there are several clear roadmarks.


 Two exceptions, because we need more granularity. In a Chabon book, one character is working on a 2,611-page novel, which at 250 words per page sets fine boundary for a "Wonder Boy" of a book.

Then there is a saying, sort of like Gladwell's somewhat debunked 10,000 hour rule that a writer's first million words are practice. Once you hit that, it's go time.

In summary, the final, definitive, universal, totally accurate and un-arguable for all time list of how many words does it take to have a short story, novel, or any other kind of non-poetic (except haiku) literary work:

Wait, sorry. I have clearly made some mistakes. Kilo is 1000, and Old Mac Donald is 1000. A Kilo-Mac Donald ought to be a million. Also, I have failed to recognize the squidgy Balette space, where the Bale and the Novelette overlap. That plus a typo where flash went to 9,999. Still, every system is imperfect. It would be foolish to scrap all this hard work and start over, right?

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