14th September, 2023
5 min read
The Art of Crafting the Perfect Length Novel
Explore the truth behind what makes the best book length
Finishing a 500-page plus book feels monumental. It's as though you should be handed a gold medal and a bottle of fizz once you finally place it down. Then again, a tiny novella can pack an equally powerful punch, dragging the reader in and spitting them out after a neat 100 pages. And then again, instead of going BIG or itty-bitty, maybe it's just best to stick to a conventional size - a handy 250-pager that slots nicely into a bookshelf. Either way, the perfect book length is clearly up for debate.
Names of different book lengths
Let's start with the basics: the names of book lengths (as you can imagine, 'BIG' and 'itty-bitty' aren't technical terms).
- Flash fiction: also known as minimalist fiction, micro fiction or sudden fiction, these are extremely short stories of up to 1000 words. The aim is to use as few words as possible to tell a full story.
- Short story: a piece of fictional prose that is fully developed but done in an economical fashion - usually between 1,000 and 7,500 words.
- Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500 words.
- Novella: between 17,500 and 40,00 words.
- Novel: the one that's most recognisable. These are at least 40,000 words but a standard commercial length would come in at around 80,000 - 90,000 words.
- Epic: HUGE book length. You're talking 120,000 to 200,000 words.
Book length vs. genre
Certain genres have a propensity towards larger word counts, which seemingly makes it more acceptable. A fantasy novel with different worlds and realms and layers to its narrative fits nicely into a big book-length, where it can spread over many words. Equally, a crime novel might need an expanse to explore different characters and their backgrounds, and how each one contributes to the central drama, before the big round-up at the novel's conclusion. Sprawling family epics cover generations of goings-on - see The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (500 or so pages) and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (around 1300 pages) - and need room to describe the multi-faceted family situations, sometimes taking place over centuries. Historical novels also cover a lot of ground and time, so, for them, a longer book length seems to work. Romance doesn't need so much room - and, thinking practically, no one wants to be lugging a brick-like book over the beach, let alone trying to squash it into your hand luggage. Lighter forms of fiction prefer neat, tightly wrapped narratives with pace and punch and quick steps through the plot. What they lack in depth, they make up for in fun. Popular thrillers also tend to sit more comfortably in a shorter novel form - following similar plot patterns and rounding off nicely with the reveal-all ending. If it's any longer, too much might reveal itself, or the ending may lose impact because you've forgotten about the clue on page 3 by the time you reach page 500.
The psychology behind a 'perfect' book length
There's a psychology behind the perfect book length, too. For example, how many times have you gone to choose your next read, picked up the weighty doorstopper you keep meaning to get to and thought, 'Hmm, maybe not this time'. It's true; bigger books can seem less appealing because they require more time effort and headspace to finish. If you do have the time and means to do so, that's great. Hence the big spike in popularity of 'reading for leisure' or 'reading for pleasure' in the eighteenth century amongst the middle class, whose environment accommodated the need for longer, more leisurely reading material. Now - for better or worse - we find ourselves in a world of TikTok-length attention spans and instant gratification that needs to be fibre-optic fast, hence the fact that the majority of successful commercial novels sit at around 90,000 in a slim, standard shape. However, if we are ever "put off" by a huge book, or our attention span or to-do list doesn't allow time for reading it - this doesn't make the book length wrong. On another day (preferably a holiday), we'd likely enjoy it. In fact, some readers prefer a satisfyingly big novel, especially those who love immersing themselves in rich or complex stories and other worlds.
Notable titles and their book lengths
Let's look at some memorable bigs and littles. One that instantly comes to mind is the 2015 runaway bestseller, A Little Life - the utterly heart-breaking novel by Hanya Yanagihara. Depending on the version you have, you're looking at over 700 pages or around 375,000 words - written in a fevered state by its author over a period of eighteen months. Critical acclaim doesn't cover it; it has sold over a million copies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015, and in 2019 was ranked in the top 100 books of the 21st century. Big books can sometimes struggle to make a big impact, but this one did. War and Peace and Les Miserables come in at around 550,000 words, while the supposedly longest book ever - according to the Guinness World Records - is Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time at a whopping 1.5 million words. On the smaller side of things, a famous six-word story (generally attributed to Ernest Hemingway) goes: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn" - evocative, economical and saying a lot with very little. There's also a genre known as 'Twitterature' in which no more than 280 characters are allowed. Small can also be hugely powerful.
So... is there a perfect book length?
I once heard it said that 'No book needs to be more than 500 pages and anything longer didn't have a good enough editor'. It's a debatable point, but (I think) only stands up if the writing is terrible in the first place. Good writing is good writing, regardless of how long it is. If it's fantastic writing, you might even want it to be longer. The editor of A Little Life apparently argued to remove bulks of the novel, but Yanagihara refused. And she was right to do so. Big books work. Little books work. Both of these also don't work. Spiky, tiny novellas can make an enormous impact, but so can a sprawling epic where all the twists and turns and each character and their granny are explored in depth and nitty-gritty detail. There are certainly pros and cons to different lengths, and we all have our preferences, but the "perfect book length" is nothing more than a work of fiction in itself. If it's good writing, length doesn't matter.
Remember, Troubador's expert team can help get your book from manuscript to market, www.troubador.co.uk - so why not see how we can help you today? If you're looking for an in-depth, opinionated edit on your own manuscript (including advice on word count, if needed!), check out Indie-Go, Troubador's sister imprint, in which an editor can offer an objective, feedback-heavy view of your manuscript, in addition to a copy-edit.
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