This post is the twenty-fifth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
As you write your story, you may wonder how long or how many words you need to write before it is complete.
The simple answer is as long or as many words as it takes to tell the story. Unless you are specifically looking to write a novella or a short story, you should be more concerned with telling the story than the word count.
But in case you are wondering, here is a guideline for story lengths. Note though that there is no unanimous consensus on the length of each of these.
Flash Fiction – under 1000 words
Short story – 1,000 to 7,500
Novelette – 7,500-20,000
Novella – 20,000 – 50,000
Novel – Over 50,000
Now, you don’t have to label your writing based on the above list. I wrote a short story prequel to my trilogy which turned out to be 12,200 words, which according to this list makes it a novelette. I figure most readers might not know what that is, so I market it as a short story because it is much shorter than the shortest book in my trilogy (which has 81,800 words).
But each of these classifications in more than just word count. They each bring about different images.
Often these are meant to explore a particular situation or set of circumstances. Of course, there may be no “purpose” to the story. It could be a simple sketch of characters or situations. They are short enough to be read in a single sitting and typically only have a handful of characters.
Unlike a novel which may contain more characters and subplots, a novella focuses on a particular point or single issue. It typically does not contain the variety of subplots found in a full-length novel.
A novel is a long fictional narrative and usually involves more than just a few characters. Compared to a short story or novella, it has a complex plot.
When looking at word length, the genre of the book should also be taken into consideration. Young Adult books tend to be shorter (50,000 to 80,000 words) while science fiction and fantasy tend to be longer (up to 125,000 words).
If your story goes over 110,000 words, you might consider either cutting some words or perhaps splitting it into two books or even expand it into a trilogy.
Remember all of these are merely guides. The most important thing is telling a good, compelling story.
Writing a Trilogy or Series
So maybe you think writing a trilogy or series of books sounds like a good idea. It does have many positives. You have a built-in audience for each subsequent book. You will have already developed your world and your main characters, so there is less preparation to do before writing books two and three (or beyond if you write a series).
Here are some tips if you want to write a trilogy.
1.) A trilogy is not only a set of three books with the same characters but three books with one overarching storyline tying them together. A trilogy can be like a three-act play where each book is one act.
Act/Book 1 – The Set-up/Decision to Act
Act/Book 2 – The Confrontation (traditionally this one ends on a “dark note” – think The Empire Strikes Back from the original Star Wars trilogy.)
Act/Book 3 – The Resolution
2.) Develop a larger story for the whole trilogy. But each book in the trilogy will need to stand alone as a complete story in itself. This really is the biggest challenge about writing a trilogy.
3.) Be sure you have a strong character for your trilogy. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a likable character but a well-developed one that will be able to last through the whole series.
Here are some Dos and Don’ts of writing a trilogy.
DON’T – Write a full-length novel and divide it into three parts.
DO – Write a story that can be sustained through three full-length novels. This can be one long story broken down into three acts, or it can be three separate stand-alone stories using the same characters. In romance novels, this is often done with three sisters/friends finding love with each sister/friend being the focus of one book. The other characters are prevalent in each book, and their stories are either building or being rounded out as the current love story takes place.
DON’T – Just write a trilogy because you think it will help you sell your novel or get people to buy subsequent books. (See the message above about having a story that can support being a trilogy.) Yes, a trilogy brings with it a set of eager readers who want to read books two and three but that only works if book 1 is good. Many fantasy authors may choose to write a fantasy novel because it is popular for this genre, but sometimes they need to stick with either a long stand-alone book or pare down the story rather than drag it out over three books.
DO – Make sure the first book can be a stand-alone novel, if needed. Take Star Wars: A New Hope, the first of the original Star Wars trilogy, as an example. It ended with a medal ceremony and could have easily been the end of the story.
DO – Plan ahead for when you write a trilogy. It makes things easier, and you can plant clues to the ending throughout the books. I wrote my trilogy without planning it until after the first book was written, which actually happens quite a bit. While it worked out in my case (and others), it would have been better to have been planned from the beginning. (less rewriting if nothing else.)
DO – Keep detailed notes and a timeline to make sure that your characters stay true to form throughout the trilogy. If someone is pregnant at the end of book 2, you need to be sure that the age of the baby works out in book 3. Or if your character received a wound that scarred in Book 1, you need to make sure the scar is there in book 3 (and in the same place). You can probably catch errors such as these in many books and movies and some observant reader will probably catch your mistakes too.
The difference between a trilogy and writing a series of books is that the trilogy is that one overall story arc. A series of books can be complete stories that take place in the same location often with the same characters. Examples of series include the alphabet mysteries by Sue Grafton, the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffery or the Jack Ryan spy thrillers by Tom Clancy.
Writing a trilogy or series of books can be a challenge. It takes planning and an overall story arc that can go the distance. But it also is great to continue to develop and work with characters you already created. It is kind of like working with old friends.