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How long should a chapter, scene, short story, novella, or novel be?
When you participate in a writing community or message board, it’s amazing how many people ask the same questions. How many words are there in a story? How long should a chapter be? How many pages are in a chapter? How many words in a novel? How many words in a novella?
It’s asked repetitively, in one form or another. Whether beginning writers ask for story length, chapter length, scene length, it’s as if they’re seeking a definitive answer when there isn’t one.
How about a rough estimate?
What I can do is give you some guidelines so that you have an approximate idea of what might work. Did you notice the words approximate and might? There’s a reason for that…
Keep reading to find out why.
How long should a story be?
You’re not going to like the answer. It depends. Don’t run off screaming in frustration yet. I’ll parse out a few ideas, but you’ll need to ask yourself a couple of questions first, to figure out a few details.
According to many writing associations, guidelines and more, a story is considered a novel after you’ve reached the point of 40,000 words.
Some places will list 50,000 words, such as qualifying for NANOWRIMO (finishing National Novel Writing Month’s challenge).
They don’t all agree. That’s the frustrating part. What’s considered a novel to one group is not quite there in another group.
For our purposes, I’m going to go with 40,000 words as the answer for the reasons listed below:
Romance Writers of America and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America both list 40,000 words for their novel length to apply for their RITA or Nebula awards contest. Mystery Writers of America lists in their First Crime Novel contest that the novel must be 40,000 words.
While publishers might ask you to submit a story that is longer, they set standards based on what they feel works best. For example, category romance is sometimes shorter than say, an epic fantasy. Even the same company might ask for different lengths based on their product lines.
Let’s take Harlequin for a perfect example. They have multiple lines based on readers’ interests. So while they prefer you submit for their Inspirational Historical Romance line, they’d like those submissions to be 70,000 words!
On the other hand, they have a line called Harlequin Intrigue that asks for 55,000, and yet another Harlequin Desire that asks for 50,000 words. You can see their full list here.
Do you see why it’s such a difficult question to answer. If one company wants varying lengths all for the same genre, how can I truly tell you how many words you should write in your story.
My first suggestion would be to know who you want to write for. I don’t mean publisher, though that’s important too, unless you’re self-publishing. I’m talking about your readers.
What type of book would your perfect reader want to read? And if you said, I want to write for everybody, I’ve got some news for you…
Marketing is going to be plum difficult for you. Segmenting this down and knowing who you are writing for is crucial to reader engagement and marketing.
Maybe you’re hoping to reach readers in their late thirties, maybe young mothers looking for reads about world building and space cowboys.
Maybe you’re targeting readers in their forties looking for an escape with paranormal romance with a lot of steam.
Or maybe your readers are past their sixties and love pun-titled, cozy mysteries that hit all the right notes.
Knowing this helps you determine the length of your stories.
Don’t get Hung Up on Story Length
We often get hung up on tiny details, rather than simply writing. Before you worry about numbers, focus on words.
Once you get moving, you’ll have a better idea of what type of length will work best for you.
If this is the first time you’ve written a book, you may be surprised what a page of writing feels like. When the words are flowing, the spill out quickly and add up, but there will be days where it feels like pulling teeth. You’ll feel like you’ve been writing for ages, and see you only racked up three or four hundred words.
The thing is, setting a plan in motion starts with the words.
How many Words in a Novella?
Okay, because most people rely on the word count for novels as a basis, this will make a little more sense and is a bit more definitive. A novella typically runs about 17,000 words up to 40,000.
In the age of ebooks, some things have changed.
Story length has shifted with self-publishing entering the field. That’s not to say that these lengths didn’t exist. They did. You simply didn’t hear the phrases novella or novelette as a reader.
Trust me, I’ve always been an avid reader, and you didn’t throw those words around, because in most cases when you bought a book, it was a novel. Maybe there was a short story segment in a magazine you read.
Today, the word novella is much more common. Novelette isn’t uses as much, but just for the record, it’s usually considered somewhere in the vein of 7,500 words up to 17,000 words.
Short stories are below that 7,500 work mark, but that doesn’t mean you need to use that many words in your short story. We’ll discuss short stories in a moment. Let’s get back to novellas for a second.
On retailers like Amazon, they now sometimes list books based on the amount of time it takes you to read them. People can choose to browse for books that average a half hour to read, upwards to two hours on one section of the Kindle store.
I’ve written books of varying length, and there’s truly no wrong answer. My short books get read, my medium length books get read, and my longer books get read.
Now, that being said, when it comes to charging for said material, you’ll want to keep that in mind. I don’t want to jump into publishing as of yet, because you need to finish your book.
No point to get ahead of yourself. Focus on the actual product and making it the best it can be. This is about the writing process at this point.
How Long is a Short Story?
Short stories are another area people get confused about. There are different variations. What people call flash fiction or micro-fiction, might be a very short story sometimes only a few hundred words or less, where others consider upwards to 7,500 words a short story.
There’s a word for those that fall between short story and novella, but most don’t know the term or even use it. It’s considered a novelette when it falls in that middle category.
We’re going to skip over that phrase, because it’s so seldom used and most readers don’t even know the word. It’s a word that travels mostly around writing communities, not reader communities.
Okay, so let’s break down short stories a bit more, than we’ll look at chapter length and scenes.
In the world of short stories, word count can sometimes be metered out this way: micro-fiction being under 100 words, which means you’re looking at a couple of short paragraphs from beginning to end. Remember, it still needs to be a full story. Flash fiction ranges from 100-1,000 words.
How do you fit a full story in a short story? Here’s a little trick for you. Rather than focus on a group of events, you focus on a moment of time or one event, maybe one day.
Micro-fiction, you might talk about the suspenseful moment of a space ship landing that’s on the verge of catastrophe from your character’s point of view. Maybe they can see the ground, but the anxiety is so thick in their throat, they don’t know if they can swallow.
Flash fiction, maybe you expand this same story between two astronauts, and their crushing fear, knowing them may not make it. Or it could still be a singular point of view, but a fuller story with added visceral elements.
Your short story would be a longer section of the story. Maybe it starts from the moment they realize that their landing is in jeopardy, and how it plays out in slow motion, until the moment they land.
Their thoughts, actions, and fears will spill out. You’ve got more room to grow your character, to make them more dynamic.
Once you start adding length, you’re also adding depth with layers. Where the novel would be the full story of the astronaut’s journey and how they changed, your micro-fiction or flash fiction would be almost like a snapshot of time.
How many words in a chapter?
When it comes to chapters, length varies greatly. You’ve heard those words before, huh? Now that you’re this far into the article, hopefully you understand why that answer is given. There are multiple elements that go into your story.
There are no hard, set rules. You get to decide what your story will be about, how long it will be, and what you want the pacing to feel like.
I’d suggest following a natural structure, because it helps your story flow better. John Truby’s Anatomy of Story is a great choice if you want to learn more about story structure.
Okay, back to chapters…
Some people love long, sweeping chapters while others like short, succinct chapters. It’s usually related to pacing. If you want the chapter to have a fast pace, you might shorten it and use shorter, punchy sentences.
If you want to slow the pace, you’ll mix in longer sentences, and extend the chapter into a gentler feel. Please note, gentle doesn’t mean boring. It means that there’s a more lyrical vibe to the writing.
For example, a sweeping romance might luxuriate in detail, where an intense scene in a horror story might use quick, punctuated phrases. To draw out suspense, the pace may slow down. There’s no right answer. Over time, you’ll get the feel for what works for you.
I find in my intense scenes, I like to move swiftly with short, punchy tones. I prefer longer sentences in a story where I want to slow things down—maybe a first kiss in a romance.
When authors discuss chapter length on message boards and in Facebook groups, the average writer tends to fall between 1500 to 3000 words per chapter. Some people prefer long chapters, while others point out that James Patterson writes short chapters, so that’s what they decided to do.
I let the scenes dictate chapter length so that it starts and ends at a natural place. I don’t go into a chapter knowing how long it will be, but rather knowing what I want to happen, or what I want my reader to experience.
How many words in a scene?
I know. I know. Here we go, again.
Before we get into how many words are in a scene, think back on what I just said for chapter length. It’s going to be a similar answer.
What I can do is show you what’s involved in your scene, so you can have a better idea.
Remember that a scene has multiple parts.
- Something happens.
- Your character reacts emotionally
- Your character reviews and rationalizes
- Your character makes a decision
- Your character takes action
First something happens.
The next part of your scene is your character’s reaction. Wow, something big just happened. They react emotionally. How long you want this to play out is an important part of deciding scene length. Will it simply be a sentence or two, or will it cover a paragraph or two, or a page or two? After their initial emotional reaction, what happens next?
So far, we know that something’s happened, and they responded emotionally. Let’s say for example that the main character crashed their car. Their heart races. They might have screamed at the moment of impact. They’re adrenaline shoots up. A sense of panic runs through them.
After this has happened, please note the after part, after this has happened, the character than reviews what happened. “Wow, what happened? I didn’t see that coming.”
In real life, we don’t say that, and then react. We react immediately, then review it. There may be logic and reason involved, there may not be. They might be in a state of shock and unable to react.
When they finally get a grip on what just happened to them, they need to figure out what they’re going to do next. They’ll make a decision, before acting on it. “I should call for help.”
How often have you been involved in something big, make that call for help, and then go…I should call for help? But many times, you’ll see that in a story! It’s backwards.
“I need an ambulance.” She called for help.
First, she called for help. When writing, these small disruptions often go unnoticed.
She called for help. “I need an ambulance.”
Do you see how the order of things matters?
Okay, let’s get back to the original question. How many words are in a scene? A scene can be as long or as short as you need it to be, as long as you give readers a complete scene!
She crashed her car. She reacted emotionally. She reviewed what happened. She made a decision, then acted on it. You could write that chapter in a handful of sentences.
Julie swerved her car, hoping to miss the deer that stood in the center of the roadway. She crashed into the guardrail with a loud bang. Her heart thundered in her chest. “What just happened?”
She reached for her phone and dialed 9-11. “I need help.”
That is a scene, albeit a very, very short one!
On the other hand, you can expand each of those sections into multiple sentences. In the first sentence, you could talk about how she was on her way home from a Christmas party and how she’d been distracted thinking about somebody she met.
When she loses control of the car, you can expand that in multiple ways, adding visceral cues like how her tires squealed when she slams on the breaks, too late.
She’s in a panic, she can’t stop her car and before she realizes it slams into the guardrail. And so on, and so on. See how you can expand on each piece, making the scene longer? We didn’t even talk about the reaction, or decision, and action.
That’s why it’s hard to give you a specific number of words in a scene. We all write differently. Put two prolific writers side-by-side. Tell them the scene you want written. They’ll both come out completely differently and at different lengths.
While there’s no definitive answer on scene or chapter length, there are basic guidelines for story count. Most sites list your story counts at:
- Novel – over 40,000 words
- Novella – 17,000 – 40,000 words
- Novelette – 7,500 – 17,000 words
- Short Story – up to 7,500 words
- Flash Fiction – 100 – 1,000 words
- Micro-fiction – up to 100 words
I hope this has been helpful, and not confusing! I know it’s easier when you’re given instructions to follow with exact bits and pieces, but in this instance, it truly is a flexible process when you’re writing a book.
My suggestion for you while writing your first book is throw aside the thought of word count and focus first on story structure. Once you have your words down, you can always expand on them later.
Have more questions? Check out a long list of writing questions and answers here.