And now for something completely the same.
For anyone who was concerned that this was going to become a political blog, don’t worry, the Ukraine post was just me dumping the answer to a research question I happened to have into a blog post, which is the source of a lot of my blog posts and rarely politically related. For example, this time I’m trying to nail down reasonable boundaries for a flash fiction, short story, novelette, novella, and novel.
Flash fiction is easy: Any story 1,000 words or less. People agree on this one. The average adult reading speed is somewhere between 200 and 350 words per minute with the average being about 250 (unless you’re speed reading, but people rarely speed read when reading for pleasure), so taking 250 as an average, a flash fiction takes about four minutes to read. 1,250 might actually be a more reasonable amount, but people actually agree that 1,000 and less is flash fiction, so I won’t try in vain to move that needle.
Short stories are also fairly well agreed upon as capping out at 7,500 words, although some people don’t start them out at 1,000 like you’d expect (or technically 1,001, if you really want to split hairs), but instead insist on starting them at somewhere around 3,000 words. These articles do not say what a story of 1,000 to 3,000 words would be called. In any case, our 250 wpm reader can finish a short story in 5-30 minutes, depending on its exact length, which I feel like is a good category. Short stories are stories you can read during a quick break between 40-ish minute periods of work. Chapters of a larger novel should probably also gravitate towards this length, so that they can fit into the same window.
The boundary between novelette, novella, and novel is far less agreed upon. People agree on the 7,500 word lower bound for novelette matching up with the max length of a short story, but given upper limits include 17,000, 17,500, 19,000, and 20,000 words. I like 20,000 words as an upper limit because it’s pretty close to being an hour and a half long for our 250 wpm reader, and 90 minutes is the amount of time we tend to gravitate towards for entertainment that’s big enough that you dedicate time to sit down and consume it (rather than reading/watching it on impulse during a break) but small enough that it’s still considered light entertainment. This is the length of time that movie comedies tend to gravitate towards, for example. It’s also a nice, round number, which makes it easier to remember.
Naturally, the lower limit on novellas has the same spread as the upper limit on novelettes, because that’s how length categories work, but the two upper limits for a novella I’ve been able to find are Writer’s Digest’s assertion of 55,000 words or the Hugos assertion of 40,000 words. The Hugos have been a public tire fire for years now (and were probably a secret tire fire for years before that), but that doesn’t mean their word count suggestions are tainted by the Warp and must be shunned.
Ultimately, however, I think the Writer’s Digest number is better on the grounds that you should be able to comfortably read a novella in one day without taking off work (or setting aside all of your other daily errands and obligations besides work), even if they’re long enough that most casual readers might not want to spend that much time reading all in one go. Our 250 wpm reader can read 55,000 words in just under four hours, which feels about right for that length. The extended editions of Lord of the Rings run from 3 hours and 28 minutes (for Fellowship) to 4 hours and 11 minutes (for Return of the King – you thought the endings were long in the theatrical release? I have not yet begun to end), and that seems like a good maximum benchmark for things that people might consume in one sitting if they really like it, without having to plan their day around it (besides committing to probably doing just that one thing for fun).
4 hours is also a commonly accepted length for a D&D session, which is another thing that people expect to be able to do regularly, but which dominates your spare time for the day that you play.
40,000 words, contrariwise, does not even take three hours for our 250 wpm reader to read, and while three hours is a long time, people who really like a thing are clearly willing to dedicate four hours to the thing in one sitting on a regular basis, so I think the 4-ish hour 55,000 word upper limit works better for something that can be (but doesn’t have to be) consumed in one long sitting.
As the largest category, a novel could just be anything longer than 55,000 words. Lord of the Rings was split up from one ~500,000 word book into three ~150,000 word books, but that was because of publishing constraints. A lot of people writing very long stories these days publish them serially online, and even for books that do go to print, the Lord of the Rings option of splitting it up into multiple volumes is still there.
However, just like novelettes, novellas, and novels benefit from being split into chapters that can be consumed in 15-30 minute chunks, and are thus structured much like a short story collection (with the obvious difference that each “short story” is sequential and assumes you’ve read the others, but that’s not a structural difference), once stories reach a certain length, they benefit from being broken up into a series of novels.
There are two places you might place the upper limit of a novel. The first is that a novel should take no more than two weeks to read assuming someone dedicates a chunk of their afternoon (but not the entire afternoon) to reading it each day. In that case, a novel should be no more than fourteen times the length of a novelette, or 280,000 words, which we can round up to 300,000 just to be make it nice and neat, since no one’s going to complain if you refer to fifteen days as being two weeks-ish. The other way of measuring it is that someone should be able to read a novel in a single all-day marathon reading session wherein they have cleared their schedule completely and read from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, with only brief breaks for meals, a shower, etc. This is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, depending on exactly how much time we leave for things like meals.
Ultimately, I gravitate more towards 300,000 words, because I think someone reading a book for an hour a two per day and wanting to be done with it in no more than 15 days is much more common than someone clearing away a full day to read an entire book all in one go. The kind of person who does the latter probably also does the former, and much more often, and the exceptions are mainly for once-in-a-generation phenomena like Harry Potter where people obsessively read books in that series but don’t necessarily read much of anything else. Particularly for book one of a series, worrying about the maximum word length past which people won’t take a chance on it because it’s too much of a time commitment to finish makes much more sense than worrying about the maximum word length past which your most obsessive fans won’t be able to read the entire book cover to cover after clearing their whole Sunday for it.
I have assembled my conclusion into a little table, because that is the data-obsessed nerd that I am.
|200 wpm||250 wpm||300 wpm||350 wpm|
|Flash fiction (0-1,000 words)||5m||4m||3m 20s||2m 51s|
|Short story (1,000-7,500 words)||37m 30s||30m||25m||21m 15s|
|Novelette (7,500-20,000 words)||1h 40m||1h 20m||1h 16m 40s||57m 8s|
|Novella (20,000-55,000 words)||4h 35m||3h 40m||3h 3m 20s||2h 37m 8s|
|Novel (55,000-300,000 words)||25h||20h||16h 40m||14h 17m 8s|