How many words does it take to tell a good story?

Preparing for a writing conference is one of the scariest and most exciting things I’ve ever done. Exciting because I get to meet writers in real life, not just in my computer! But it’s scary because there’s always that pesky tendency to compare my work and success with theirs.

And then there’s the pitching part. I signed up to pitch my latest story to an agent. I don’t think I need to describe how intimidating THAT will be.

I submitted my query letter ahead of time and got it back last night. My WIP is unfinished and currently thirty thousand words. I don’t have a final word count goal; I never do. My stories end when I feel they are finished. After reading the comments on the query letter, though, now I’m starting to have doubts. My longest work is just shy of fifty thousand words, and according to the pro who read my letter, no agent will touch a manuscript that is not a minimum of sixty thousand words.

My first thought: What! They won’t even LOOK at it? That’s not fair! Novellas are a legitimate form of literature!

My second thought: Well, these people are professionals. They know it requires a minimum amount of words to tell a good, well-developed story. They know the publishing world way better than you, and they certainly aren’t idiots.

Like any writer, indie or otherwise, I enlist a great deal of trust in my beta readers to tell me if a story is ready for publication. Now I worry that, despite their honesty, I published half-assed, under-developed stories. The reviews overall don’t suggest this is the case. But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry. I am and will always be my worst critic.

I’m reminded of all those book reports I had to write in high school where there was a minimum of five required pages. This was annoying, since I could perfectly summarize the book and what I thought of it in half that amount of pages. The key, I thought, was choosing the right words and using them well.

So what do you think? Is there a required minimum amount of words to tell a good story, or is it highly subjective, depending on the subject and genre?


14 thoughts on “How many words does it take to tell a good story?

  1. Word count is SO totally subjective that it isn’t funny. It has to do with the book having enough pages to look like it’s big enough for the average reader today. I suspect it’s a marketing decision based on spine thickness when the “average shopper” is looking at books in the bookstore. When you look at the spines of the “classics”, though, they were MUCH shorter books.

    So yeah, write to the point that YOU feel comfortable with it and don’t worry about the naysayers.

    Of course, I’m also the one who thinks that a good chapter is around 2500 words and once took an (incomplete) epic all the way to 75 chapters that way… so mileage varies.


    • I’d still like to try querying agents for a few months to a year or so. I may be pleasantly surprised if I can hook someone with the concept of the story. We’ll see…I’ll keep the blogosphere posted 🙂


  2. I just read your excerpt in the previous post, I thought it was good enough that ill buy it. I basically only read two modern female writers, donna tart and gillian flynn (and she about lost me after gone girl). That said one of my top 3 favorite authors is flannery oconnor. It seems to me that what’s getting published today are stories about the controversial, and that you writers are being forced to create plots and characters that you can market across as many demographics as possible rather than just constructing an argument through a good story.


  3. This really makes me want to comment on everything that is wrong with the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. But, that doesn’t solve the problem you’re faced with. First off, you may be worrying for no reason. Until you’ve finished the story, you don’t know what your final word count will be. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Second, why not just avoid talking about the word count in the first place? If you can sell an agent on the concept, you might be able to get away with something shy of the “norm.” 50,000 is a bit short for a typical novel though (even YA runs ~65k). Third, this is everything that is wrong with traditional publishing! 😉 They want something that fits the mold and makes them money. Everything else is a waste of their time. Good luck! 😀


  4. I think a story takes as many words as it takes and often less is more. On the other hand I have read several times that a novel needs at least 60 000 words. Having said that though as you say novellas are legitimate stories and I would have t hought they were becoming more popular.


  5. Erm, I think Samuel Beckett, Daphne du Maurier, and Virginia Woolf would all have something to say about minimum lengths. Beckett in particular would have a Freudian field day.

    Now, I’m sure at least one person would retort that all the authors I just listed were all active in the first half of the 20th century. That’s true.

    It’s also true they’re all still in print, and that their work is revered.


  6. I tend to think word count is subjective. The first draft of my WIP is proof that you can have 90K words and half of them can be useless crap in terms of the characters/plot. Using more words does not make a better story; it’s as you say, the right words make the best story.

    On a personal note, I really appreciate the snappy pace of your plots because it makes it easier for me to stay engaged with the story. I think the only one where I wanted to see more of certain characters was ‘Where There’s Smoke’, but I felt ‘Public Displays’ and ‘Someone’ were spot on.

    Hope your first writing conference goes really well!


    • I think the genre matters in determining word count too. Take fantasy, for example. World building is necessary to bring readers in, so you’d need a lot of words to do that. I’ve taken part in writing groups where many participants wanted to know everything about a main character, even if the details didn’t affect the story much: like where they grew up, what their families are like, etc. I’ll admit that Where There’s Smoke could have been better in those respects. That little book took on quite a bit of heavy subject matter, but as much as I considered embellishing the other characters, I didn’t want the story to be taken from Hannah.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t like the length requirement. I think less is more sometimes. If your story is told, with however much detail YOU want in it, then its done. I do like a lot of detail in the stories I read, but you don’t want your reader to think, “okay, get on with it already.” Just my opinion, I don’t know anything. 🙂


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