Does Length Matter?

Now you know I’m talking about book lengths…

As someone who is new to this independent author thing, I really didn’t have a clue what the distinctions were between a novel and novella. Then one day, I stumbled upon this nifty post that really highlighted the difference between writing categories. Essentially, short stories are no longer than 10,000 words, novellas are no longer than 40,000 words and anything over 40,000 words is generally considered a novel. With that in mind, blog posts and articles that I’ve come across have a majority consensus that states the shorter the story, the less likely readers will enjoy it (Ouch! My little story is only 138 pages). Of course that got me thinking if that majority opinion was true. In order to validate this assertion, I did a quick cursory glance at the top 10 books on the New York Times Bestsellers list. As of the date of this post, the average length of the top 10 books is about 373 pages with the shortest length at 236 pages and the longest at 531 pages. That raised yet another question; do shorter narratives somehow cheapen the reader’s experience?

My very unscientific research suggests that readers do enjoy rather lengthy novels. I find this interesting, mainly because we live in a society where everyone is constantly on the go. If what you have to say can’t be conveyed in 140 characters or less, then people are less inclined to find out more about what you’re saying or trying to push (thanks Twitter!). I don’t know if you’re like this as well, but my attention span is so bad that I’ll even flip channels to another program during the commercials of the program that I was watching. When I shop for books, I’ll also tend to go for the shorter stories (but obviously I’m an oddball in that category). Although social media and other forms of technology have altered our attention spans, why do readers still appear to invest their dough in longer novels? I have two theories.

The first theory is the most obvious; people invest money in items that they deem valuable. Basically, you’re getting more bang for your buck; if the book is 700 pages long, then it’s worth spending $8.99 to purchase the Kindle edition because you’re sure to be entertained, right? Secondly, people read as a form of escapism. As such, the lengthier the novel, the longer the reader can remain absorbed in the fantasy world of the story, thus forgetting whatever issues may be going on in their lives. So, with both of these theories in mind, does this mean that (on average) shorter novels don’t stand a chance to reach the pinnacles of success like lengthier ones?

Surely, many other factors play a role in whether or not a reader will purchase a book (e.g. name recognition, marketing, en vogue genres, etc.), but what are your thoughts? Do you enjoy reading longer or shorter stories? If you’re a writer, do you prefer writing longer or shorter manuscripts? As always, leave your comments below or find me on social media (I’m now on Facebook, although I’m seriously considering shutting that down. It’s too complex!)






9 thoughts on “Does Length Matter?

  1. The bigger the better! Just kidding, the bigger the more it hurts!!:) Just wanted to start out with a little joke. Now for the proposed question; I don’t have a preference either way. I like long novels if there story is complex and very detailed. With that being said, sometimes long novels can be a little too detailed and it’s hard to keep up with all the characters and subplots. Take the Game of Thrones novels for instance; I’ve read all of them (unless he has released a new one) and they are about 12,000 pages each (sarcasm). There are about 700 characters you have to keep up with as well as 250 subplots. Very good writing and great stories but I feel like I needed to come up with an outline to figure out what was going on. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series are long as well (probably about 400 pages) but there are only a few characters and 1 plot. Excellent, excellent novels; the length is needed because of the 1 plot and each page builds you up for the climax (who doesn’t love a good climax?!). Short novels work for me as well because sometimes the story is short, sweet, and to the point. Honestly a short novel may hold my attention longer because I know I easily get through it (if it’s good) and I want to get to the end. A 700 page novel may take a week or 2, depending on how much free time I have while a 150 page novel may only take about 2 hours.


    • Love the humor! I agree with longer novels being overly descriptive sometimes, which also goes back to the attention span issue. My husband thinks I should include more descriptions of scenery and characters (side eye) but I guess I can see his point in “painting a picture” for the reader.

      It’s nice to hear that readers vary when it comes to reading longer or short stories depending on the quality of the writing.

  2. I think descriptions are necessary if they help tell the story. For example, if a story is a about a survivor of a horrific car accident, descriptive details can help tell the story. It might be beneficial to know Tyrone/Katie was attempting to drive through a tropical storm to make it to JC Penny’s before it closed. Otherwise, it’s not necessary to be too descriptive (IMO).


    • I agree that descriptions are important when they serve a purpose. However, I don’t think it’s important to describe that Savannah had on a green dress that was somewhere between the shades of sage and kelly green and that the fabric was satin and had 4 small round buttons in the back. I mean, the only way that would be important is if something happens to the dress that comes into play later in the plot, or if it has some type of sentimental value for Savannah (or evokes some emotion in whoever is telling the story). Other than that, I think just knowing she had on a green dress is sufficient.

  3. OK, SM, since you requested my thoughts on this one, I’ll take a crack at it. As someone who did have a professionally publish book, as well as someone who did ghosting work on screenplays and scripts all throughout Hollywood for a few years, I can tell you that you seem to have a natural screenwriter’s mind about this. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into that, but let me explain.
    In screenwriting (and I’m sure anyone who has read most of my stories can quickly assess my background in as they are very dialogue heavy) sometimes the least amount of detail and description is a good thing because it allows for the directors and actors and everyone else on a film to fill-in-the-blank with their own creativity. As mentioned in your comment to Krob, knowing everything about the dress isn’t necessary; in fact, even knowing the dress is green wouldn’t be necessary in a script.
    As far as description goes, so long as it drives the story forward either in form or character development (form is like the poetry of the story; if you can write beautiful prose about the greenness of the dress in less than 3 sentences it’s fine). Sometimes what a character is wearing or the description around them can help to build their own character. For instance, in my episodic novel The Writer both Alek and Michael are frequently written as “wearing a jacket” even thought it’s summer. That’s to symbolize how guarded they each are about the world around them. Stuff like that some readers will catch and some won’t. Description can be an especially useful tool in building suspense and painting the viewpoint of the reader. One of the reasons The Writer includes some screenplay techniques is because a trained mind that thinks visually can somewhat film make within their brain. It can both flatten the image like you’re viewing it on TV and create it in 3D as if you’re standing next to the characters. Second comment to follow.

  4. Boy that first replay was long, right? Hope I didn’t lose you on that one. But I had to have a second comment because this speaks more to my time having gotten a novel published traditionally.
    While I will commend you on your research of word count and book length, always remember two things: that they are not at all mutually exclusive and that in traditional publishing they are highly dependent on the genre of book.
    The first thing about the word count and the page count is an easy one. Obviously, you can figure that out. Different print sizes and so forth. However, it actually used to be that about 250 words per page courier new 12pt font was the standard for how books should be traditionally submitted to publishers. That, or 100,000 words automatically equaled 400 pages but different prints and sizes. I’ve seen some of my own books like A Furious Wind (140,000 words) get listed far shorter than they are (amazon has it at 379 pages; should be between 410-500; its almost as long as Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Of course digital page length is an entirely different issue because most authors have it as a free-flowing webpage, so many don’t have numbers, which can be both blessing and a curse. Still haven’t figured out the equation by which they measure the pages on Amazon.
    The second part about genre speaks to Krob’s first comment. Both books he mentioned Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the Game of Thrones books fit into Mystery/Suspense and fantasy, respectively. Both genres (with the exception of those reads geared toward kids younger than YA) are accepted to be either short form novella genres or long form epic novel genres; in other words, those lengthy tomes are the standard in their genre. People have grown accustomed to those lengths for years. Generally, it is because of the world-building and the clue dropping that persists within them. It’s not just enough to know that a woman was killed, you have to know why she was killed, what makes the detectives trying to solve her murder unique, why has no one else solved it, what clues would only they see, what clues are you the reader supposed to see, etc. I think length, in some ways, suggests to readers that the author has put more care and deep thought into everything about the novel which is why they sell more. But always remember, just because they’re selling doesn’t mean that everyone is reading what they’re buying.

    • Wow Michael! Thanks for stopping by and sharing all this information. That was a lot to take in! Where to start? 🙂 I agree with Kindle condensing manuscripts (my Word file is close to 180 pages yet on Kindle it’s 138). I can get down with a wordy mystery mainly because I love a good “who done it.” As far as fantasy novels, I think you have a valid point in stating that they are lengthy because the author has to really take the time building the fantasy world. However, the excessive wordiness of those books may be why I’ve never been able to really get into them (I did like the Hunger Games series and most of King’s Dark Tower Series). Now, I will say that I thoroughly enjoy some sic-fi TV and/or movies( Dr. Who is one of my favs and maybe The Walking Dead falls into this?).

      As far as screenwriting goes,I’ve never looked into it, but you’ve given me something to think about. I’m not even sure how one would begin to get into that. But, now that you’ve mentioned it, I have a question for you: Most movies that are currently out in theaters are based off novels. What is the role of the screenplay in those cases?

      • I could actually write an entire post on that, but I’ll try to keep this shorter and simple.
        The script and to a greater extent, the screenwriter, is a diviner of what is and isn’t most important to telling the story; what will visually work in the film; how to structure the story so that there is a pacing to it that people will enjoy and makes sense; and the suggester of visual cues. I say suggester because the director will obviously have the final say. But essentially, a screenwriter is supposed to figure out what makes the book work so well and cut all the rest of the fat, turning the story into a visual feast. Again, I showed plenty of examples of this throughout The Writer, especially on the episode Dark Matter that just came out. But basically the script is a visual roadmap filled with very brief paragraphs and lines that are supposed to give you just enough to see the scene painted in your mind from one camera angle. There, page count is even more important because each page is considered one minute in film and it looks nothing like a novel. It has a lot more white space and is highly condensed because you’re taking a 300, 400, 500 page novel and turning it into 150-180 page 3 hour movie. Not as poetic, it take a great skill to be brief there. I’m a little out of practice but I’m going to be writing a new script soon so I have to get back to practicing that skill.

        • Hmm. That’s interesting to know. Who would of thought 1 page = 1 minute of film? I can see how and why it could be difficult to isolate only the important parts in the novel. Sometimes I think screen adaptations can look exactly like the film or TV show. I’m thinking specifically of the first season of True Blood. That pretty much followed the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series. There were only a handful of deviations from the book throughout the first season.

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