How Long Does a Novel Have to Be?

Updated on August 4, 2017
Marisa Wright profile image

Kate Swanson wrote her first novel at 15, created her first blog in 2006 and has been writing for profit, and creating websites ever since.

A novel must be at least 70,000 words long (unless it's a Mills & Boon style romance, or erotica, when you can get away with 50,000). Sagas of 150,000 words and more do get published, but they are more expensive to print, so too many words may be just as much of a disadvantage as too few.

My Novel Is Too Short!

If your novel is too short, your first reaction might be to try to make the story more complicated. You may be tempted to create more obstacles for your protagonist, or add a sub-plot or two. Don't be too hasty! Lack of story is almost certainly not your problem!

Possible Reasons for "Writing Short"

Being Too Efficient

If your background is in journalism, business writing or academia, you've spent years learning how to cut the waffle and get down to brass tacks. The thing is, a novel isn't just about facts - it's about atmosphere, description and feelings, too.

Forgetting What Your Reader Doesn't Know

If you write "short", the problem may be that you know what your characters and locations look like, and you know the inner motivations of your characters, and you forget your reader doesn't. I write short, and my first draft always reads like an action movie, cutting from one scene to another with the minimum of detail.

The trouble with that is, there is no camera to fill in all the blanks. The reader doesn't have enough information to picture the characters or where they are, so they can't get involved in the story. Also if the story jumps too quickly from one scene to the next, they'll feel disoriented and rushed.

Either way, they're going to give up on your novel. If they don't finish your book, they're not going to buy the next one - and there goes your writing career!

How to Fix It

I didn't realise I "wrote short" until I read a book set on the same Greek island as my own novel.

The author took a page and a half to describe the harbor. To describe the same harbor, I'd written three lines! Personally, I thought a page and a half was too much. But I had to admit, it was a heck of a lot better than my three lines...

If you write short, you need to work on each scene in detail. Ask yourself what you're unconsciously editing out. What have you forgotten to explain to your reader?

  • Scene setting. The reader needs to know where your characters are, even if it's a fairly nondescript room. A good exercise is to see if you can use each of the five senses to describe the setting. You may not use them all in the end, but doing the exercise does make you think!
  • Character description. This is part of scene setting, really. When your protagonist meets someone for the first time, they make a mental assessment of that person. Make sure you do, too. A short word picture of each character as they appear will make the story seem more alive.
  • Show not tell. For characters other than your POV character, don't mind-read. Put yourself in the reader's shoes and describe what they see, not what you know about the characters. For instance, don't say, "Christine felt a pain in her chest". Instead, say, "Christine's face spasmed in pain and she clutched her chest". The main benefit of this approach is that it makes the scene more alive, but a by-product is that it also uses more words!
  • Use dialogue. Don't report on conversations, show them. And don't just relay the speech - make sure you include the movements and reactions of the characters as they're talking.

Is your Novel is too Long?

If by any chance you have the opposite problem - that your novel is too long - you're lucky, because it's easier to remove words than to add them (though I know it's painful to do the slashing!).

You may think your book is great just the way it is, and doesn't need "slashing" - but I can virtually guarantee that you're wrong!

Verbal Diarrhea

I often encounter writers who think their writing must be good because the words come so easily. Just remember that when things flow too well, it's often not a good sign! Words that flow on to the page usually need stringent editing, because they're likely to be too rambling.

Too Much Detail

Another possible reason for excessive length is the temptation to include every single scene that takes place between your characters, even if its not relevant to the story. Or perhaps you feel the need to include descriptions and backstories for every minor character.

Too Much Research

You may need to do a lot of research before embarking on your novel. You need the detail to set the scenes accurately and make sure everything is believable. However, your reader doesn't need to know most of it. I see so many writers who obviously thought, "I spent days gathering this material, I'm darn well going to show it off!", but it's not a good idea.

You may think it's all fascinating - but to your reader, those unnecessary details are b-o-r-i-n-g.

Questions & Answers

    © 2008 Kate Swanson

    Comments

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      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        19 months ago

        Thank you. Great tip.

      • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate Swanson 

        19 months ago from Sydney

        Word economy is a tough habit to break! It's so essential in business writing and non-fiction writing, so the transition to fiction writing is a tough one.

        I've been putting my novel on Critiquecircle.com chapter by chapter recently - it's a great way to find out what's missing. I recommend it

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        19 months ago

        Thank you. Writing short is a problem that I have been unable to get around. Yes, effective writing classes, word economy. If I understand you correctly instead of writing "a stark apartment" I should describe what is in the apartment, which implicitly tells what is not in the apartment.

      • Ceres Schwarz profile image

        Ceres Schwarz 

        5 years ago

        Informative and interesting hub. Writing too short or too long isn't good. It's important to describe things well so your readers understand what is going on but it shouldn't be too long that it would just end up boring the readers.

      • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate Swanson 

        6 years ago from Sydney

        @Sarah, not necessarily. I've known action scenes go that long and the suspense was great.

      • profile image

        Sarah'sDog 

        6 years ago

        I am only eleven, and have just finished typing my novella into the computer. Seriously, I am a 'short' writer. I had to redo a whole action scene, that, at first, took only a couple paragraphs, but now, it's stretched to a page and a half. Is that too long?"

      • profile image

        Terry 

        7 years ago

        Excellent article . Easily understood and insightful . Please continue with more .

      • profile image

        Andre Coleman 

        7 years ago

        Thanks for the information it was very helpful because I thought I was almost done writing my book until I realize I'm only on page 17 and having 12,175 words.

      • Don Simkovich profile image

        Don Simkovich 

        8 years ago from Pasadena, CA

        Thanks for writing this Marissa. I'm writing my first novel - for an online publisher - I have the interest of an editor who read one of my previous works that didn't fit their genre but she liked my writing. I know what you mean by writing short although I feel I describe well, etc. My background in my undergrad years was Short Story Writing. And I was content to write short all my professional life - radio, brochures, blogs, Hubs!!! I was always scared I would never finish a novel and it took too much time for possibly no payoff. I'm beyond that now. I think mine will be right about 70,000 when I'm done. I've done some rough outlines and I like that.

      • profile image

        Sidney Rayne 

        8 years ago

        Very informative and you covered a lot of key elements...the five senses comment was dead on the money....by the way I have only gotten to four as well!

      • cindyvine profile image

        Cindy Vine 

        9 years ago from Cape Town

        Great advice, Marisa!

      • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate Swanson 

        9 years ago from Sydney

        Thanks Sam, glad I could help. I wrote a novel at about your age - I don't think I actually finished it until I was about sixteen though!

      • profile image

        sam 

        9 years ago

        great advice thanks. I'm 11 years old and ever since I was around four years old I have had a great interest in writing... I went online for some advice as I am currently stuck on the 25th page of my "novel" This advice has really helped me and I am sure I can finish my novel now... cheers sam atherton

        sentosasam@gmail.com

      • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate Swanson 

        9 years ago from Sydney

        Thank you so much, Zsuzsy! I wrote quite a number of articles on novel writing, arising from some serious research I did a few years ago. Unfortunately most of them are on Helium, and I can't delete them - so I've hesitated to put them on HP because of the duplicate content penalty. I must find time to rewrite some of them!

      • Benson Yeung profile image

        Benson Yeung 

        9 years ago from Hong Kong

        thanks for sharing these ideas. looking forward to reading more of these.

        cheers,

      • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

        Zsuzsy Bee 

        9 years ago from Ontario/Canada

        I've been so busy over the past couple of weeks I just now had a mo' to take a look. I must say it is possibly one of your best hubs Marissa. Thanks for sharing all that great info. I've just sent off a kids book, two weeks ago to an editor... so now I'm sitting around with my fingers, eyes and toes crossed. It is really very uncomfortable...

        As I said great hub regards Zsuzsy

      • J.T. profile image

        J.T. 

        9 years ago

        Brilliant hub, marisa.

        Yours

        J.T.

      • selvirajan profile image

        selvirajan 

        9 years ago from India

        Hi Marisa, Thanks for the article. This is what i am exactly searching for a while and i came to read this today. I have written a short story, that was my first ever story, so being a novice i would greatly appreciate your comments.

      • Marisa Wright profile imageAUTHOR

        Kate Swanson 

        9 years ago from Sydney

        Paraglider, I used to read a lot of science fiction, where novellas were common. I agree - a novella is a nice length, long enough to be engaging but not long enough to get tedious. Unfortunately anthologies are no longer fashionable so they seem to have fallen out of favour.

      • Paraglider profile image

        Dave McClure 

        9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

        Hi Marisa - lots of good ideas here. I write short, which is fine for blogs, hubs & poetry, but if I ever have the time to tackle a novel, I'll need to give it some serious thought.

        I do regret the unfashionability of the novella form though, the long short story. Most novels are unnecessarily long, in my view.

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