Two weeks ago, we began a discussion on story lengths. This came from a question I have been asked of late: what types of story types are there?
This is a more complex answer than it may appear. On the surface, we have two types of stories: the novel and the short story. We began with short story lengths. Last week, we explored novellas. And today, we will talk about the novel. That will lead into a discussion about National Novel Writing Month.
When we think of reading book-length fiction, we think of reading a novel. Novels are written for all ages, on all subjects, and in every genre. In order to determine the proper length of a novel, genre and the reader’s age come into play.
Most often, children’s and middle grade fiction are categorized by their age or book type (chapter book, picture book, etc.) rather than by calling the book a novel. Novels tend to be significantly longer than most books written for the younger age groups. Middle grade novels are right on the cusp. For them, a 40,000-60,000 word novel is ideal, but more and more often nowadays, they reach into young adult-lengths.
In recent years, we have seen a change with young adult or YA novel lengths. It seems we have come to realize that teens can and want to read books as long or longer than adults. What differentiates a YA novel from an adult novel is content, the age of the characters, and how the content is expressed. YA does not go over a PG-13 rating. It’s characters should be on the older end of the YA age spectrum (between 15-18 years old). However, addressing serious topics is not necessarily taboo.
As I mentioned in my radio interview on Conversations with Wisconsin Artists, I truly believe we do not give teens enough credit for how much they can read or the topics they want to read about. Publishers tend to shy away from controversial topics such as abortion, especially in a YA book, but many YA characters deal with bullying, heavy responsibility, and consequences to choices.
When it comes to YA novel length, we can see humongous books (for example, hardcover copy of the 7th Harry Potter, Deathly Hallows, has 784 pages). Unless you’re J. K. Rowling, however, it’s best to stay under the 100,000 word mark when pitching a novel to a publisher.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have reluctant readers. These students need to be encouraged in creative ways. This can happen through short stories, face-paced & well-written novels, graphic novels (novel length comic books), and helping them see how (certain) video games and movies are really stories acted out on screen. (For the ALA’s quick picks for reluctant readers, visit the YALSA).
I believe that just because a book is YA or even middle grade, we should not dumb down the content (which is why I geared my middle grade western, The Vanishing Kidnapper, to reluctant readers). Today’s teens are invested in the world, they advocate change, and deeply care about the relationships around them. As YA writers, we need to give them characters in a book with whom they can relate and a story they can believe in.
For adults, novel length depends entirely on genre. An epic Sci-Fi or Fantasy can stretch close to 100,000 words (again, when pitching to a publisher, avoid going over 100k). Mysteries and thrillers are a little less, but still need enough words to manage all the twists and turns they should hold. For more details on genre and word length, check out Chuck Sambuchino’s Writer’s Digest blog post.
For those of you who want to write a novel or improve your craft, during the month of November, we’ll explore resources that will help in your quest. One step could be participating in National Novel Writing Month. More on that next week!