Types of Fiction
A while back, I did a post on genre, which is a way of classifying stories by their subject. Today I’m going to look at types of fiction based on their length.
When we talk about books, we often talk about the number of pages. However, the number of pages in a book depends on a lot of things like the size of the page and the size of the words, if there are pictures, etc. Plus, now that e-books are popular, the number of pages does not matter as much. So I am just going to talk about the number of words here when I talk about length.
We are going to look four kinds of fiction. These are:
- Flash fiction
- Short story
For each type, I’ll look at five factors:
- Length: how many words it usually is
- Format: where you would usually read this type or where you could get yours published
- Structure: how this type of story is usually laid out
- Why write this?: the reasons why this is a good kind of story to write
- Difficulties: things that make this type hard to write or things to watch out for
Note: the word counts of each type are estimates since there are no hard rules about that. Like a lot of things, there are a lot of fuzzy areas in the middle.
1. Flash Fiction
Usually less than 500 words but no more than 1000 words
Flash fiction is almost always online, on websites such as this. It is a type of story very suited to reading on the computer or on your phone. There are magazines that print flash fiction but it’s not something you’ll make much money from, if any.
Flash fiction is about getting in, telling the story, and getting out. You usually have 1-2 characters and have one point of conflict. There’s no time for anything else. It is super important to make every word count since you don’t have many to work with.
Why write this?
The good thing about flash fiction is that it is short. That means you can write a story every day and experiment with different styles and points of view. If it doesn’t work, you just move on and write another story. It’s also a good way to write all those little story ideas that you could not make into a longer story. It is also easier to get this type of story published online (although because they are short you will not get paid much, if anything, for them).
The problem with flash fiction is because it is so short, it can be difficult to write a complete story in a small amount of words. That takes practice and reading other flash fiction to see how those writers do it.
2. Short Stories
Usually 1,000-10,000 words
You will find this kind of story in literary magazines or in anthologies of stories, although there are many places online where you can read them or get them published as well. They are too short to put in a book by themselves, unless it’s in a group of short stories.
Like flash fiction, there will be a small number of characters, a single conflict and usually a limited location. However, you can take a bit more time to develop characters and created an atmosphere in a short story than in flash fiction.
Why write this?
Like flash fiction, this is a short format and so you can write them more quickly. You can’t write a short story every day but because they’re a bit longer, you can try some writing techniques that you just don’t have space for in flash fiction. We recently published a short story called Forever Brave, Forever Seventeen by a young writer from Kazakhstan. That story used a flashback to tell the story in two different time periods. That would not be possible in flash fiction where there really aren’t enough words to do that justice.
Short stories may be longer than flash fiction, but they are still quite short, relative to other types of writing, so it is important to keep focus. It might be tempting to add more characters or sub-plots but do not use any more than you need to tell the single story you are telling (a good rule to follow anyway).
Usually 20,000-40,000 words
If you are paying attention, you will immediately notice that there is a gap in the word count. What about stories that are 10,000-20,000 words long? These are sometimes called novelettes, but since they are similar to novellas except for the length, it didn’t seem worth talking about them. So, for our purposes, we will consider anything in that range unusually long short stories or unusually short novellas.
In the past, it was not easy to publish novellas, especially when they were on the short side. That was because it was not worth the trouble to set up the machinery to print such a short book. However, these days, it is very easy to find this length of book on e-books or print-on-demand websites. These are ones where they print the book only when you order it and then send it to you.
We are starting to get into the length of story where it really depends who you are writing for. If you are writing stories for elementary school or even middle school students, this is the normal length of a book and they shouldn’t get any longer than this. We don’t usually call books for kids novellas but to avoid too many terms, I’m going to use it that way here. There will the main conflict in the story but maybe a few sub-plots. There can be a handful of main characters, plus helper characters (see my post on Characters here).
If you are writing for adults, a novella is a scaled down novel (there are people that will argue this point, but for our purposes, we will think of it like this). There is one main conflict and a small group of main characters.
Why write this?
If you writing books for young people, this is the length of story you want. This length is what publishers are looking for for that age group.
If you are writing for adults, writing a novella is a good way to ease into writing a novel. You can experiment with the techniques for writing a novel but don’t have to write 60,000 or 80,000 words.
Like many things in the fuzzy, not-this-but-not-that middle area, novellas can have an identity crisis. It is hard to know what to do with a 20,000-word story for adults since it is too long to be a short story but too short for a novel. If you want to try to get it published, it is better to expand it to full novel length.
Anything over 40,000 words
Some people say over 50,000 words but it doesn’t matter, especially since it depends on who you are writing for and the kind of story it is. Stories for elementary or middle school students probably won’t be over 50,000 words. However, some books like science fiction and fantasy can be over 100,000 words since they usually are set in a new world that takes some explanation.
Usually, especially for new writers, shorter is better. This is because people might not want to read a very long story by someone they don’t know.
Novels are the most common type of writing and almost every fictional book is a novel. Most fiction you see in a bookstore or library will be a novel.
There are no real rules about what the structure of a novel can be. There is the usual structure (we’ll save that for a later post), but some novels can have a hundred characters and take place over the span of a century or more, while others can have one character and take place in a single day. This makes them very free, but it also can be a difficulty for new writers since there are so many options.
Why write this?
In our society, the novel is seen as the highest type of fiction. Most professional fiction writers are novelists and that is the most marketable kind of fiction.
However, that aside, writing a novel is a great accomplishment. Unlike a short story, it is something you can get printed and keep on your shelf. It is also a type of story where you write those really big ideas that don’t fit into a short story. You have the space to explore a lot of ideas and complicated story lines.
The main problem with a novel is that it is long. This has two issues. The first is that there could be many story lines, characters and themes to juggle. It is hard to keep everything in a good balance. However, this just takes practice.
The other issue is that novels take a long time to write. Sometimes you might start a novel and then find that it is runs out of power after 10,000 words or 25,000 or whenever. This is very common. The most important thing is to power through and finish it, even if you think it’s terrible. The fact is, you cannot do anything with a half-finished story. If it’s a finished story, you can edit it to make it better. One finished story is worth 50 unfinished ones.
Now it’s your turn
Usually in this section, I give some questions or things to try or look for. However, this time, I’m going to do something different.
I would recommend if you are a new writer, that you experiment with many different types of stories. There is no such thing as a failure, there are only learning experiences. Start with flash fiction and work your way up to longer stories as far as you like.
If you have any short fiction you would like to submit, we are open to submissions up to 5000 words. We take stories of any type or genre as long as it would be appropriate for kids or teenagers to read. The Submissions link is at the top of the page or you can click here to reach it.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at email@example.com.