HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR FANTASY NOVEL BE?

Last weekend at a seminar at Emerald City Comic Con I was asked again about length, with the assumption that fantasy novels should be, or are expected to be, or somehow sell better if they are 200,000 words long or longer. Though there are some major fantasy best sellers in that range, I’ve always had a feeling that that assumption is simply false. But then I’m also willing to admit my own personal bias toward shorter books. So I thought I’d put a bit of research in. So this week, let’s break down some of the best selling books of all time, and some other fantasy best sellers, and see how this magical 200,000 word mark stands up.

According to List Challenge’s 101 Best Selling Books of All Time, the ten best selling books are, in this order:

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin
  5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  6. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  7. She by H. Rider Haggard
  8. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

So how long are they? Surely the six fantasy novels on the list (I’m counting The Lord of the Rings as three books) must be monstrously enormous tomes of well over 200,000 words. Right? That’s what fantasy fans want, right?

The Fellowship of the Ring is about 177,000 words, and is the longest of the three, which get shorter as you go. The Two Towers is about 143,000 words and The Return of the King about 134,000. The Hobbit is 95,000 words long.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is only 36,000 and change.

The Little Prince is a scant 16,500 words.

Yeah, I know, but there are huge fantasy novels that have sold like crazy. And indeed, there are. The eleven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series average out to about 300,000 words each, as does George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.

But only two of the Harry Potter books come close to 200,000 words (Goblet of Fire: 191,000 and Deathly Hallows: 198,000 words), and R.A. Salvatore’s mega-best selling Legend of Drizzt series averages out at just a smidge over 100,000 words each. The longest might be 130,000 words, the shortest, about 90,000 words. Even Frank Herbert’s epic Dune falls under that 200,000 word mark at 188,000 words.

In fact, of the ten best selling books of all time, only the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber passes the 200,000 word mark and might be as long as 850,000 words.

The rest of the ten best selling books of all time? A Tale of Two Cities (135,000 words), And Then There Were None (approximately 95,000 words), She (121,000 words), The Da Vinci Code (170,000 words), and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (73,000 words).

Removing the statistical outlier of Dream of the Red Chamber and counting The Lord of the Rings as three books, our top ten averages out to 108,682 words.

So based on sales, that’s your benchmark, not 200,000 words. And also keep this question in mind: Are these massive fantasy uber-epics a fad that’s on the wane? How many times have you heard complaints about Wheel of Time and other so-called “fat-fantasies” seeming padded, bloated, or otherwise just plain too long?

In the end, of course, your book should be precisely as long as it needs to be to tell your story and put forward your ideas.

If that takes you 200,000 or 300,000 words, there are people who will read that, and those “people” even include me, who would rather read shorter books but won’t refuse to read a great book just becuase it’s long. I was a bit intimidated by the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is about 310,000 words long, but not only did I read every word of it, it remains among my most favorite fantasy novels of all time.

But if you can be as monumentally brilliant in 16,000 words as Antoine de Saint-Exupery was in his amazing The Little Prince, then that’s all the book you need to write. No one could possibly read The Little Prince and think, Yeah, it was okay, but it should be twenty times longer! And the fact that it’s short didn’t keep it from out-selling all but seven books in, y’know, the history of literature.

For the record, I sourced these word counts, which are approximations rounded to the nearest thousand, from various sources including: Word Count by Genre from worddreams…, Fantasy Faction’s Word Counts of Epic Fantasy Novels, and Great Novels and Word Count from Indefeasible.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, conventions, creative team, Dungeons & Dragons, horror novels, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR FANTASY NOVEL BE?

  1. I definitely did not think The Little Prince needed to be 20x longer when I read it in French for my French 3 high school class! Nice article. There are always exceptions to the rule, but many books that are 200,000 words and (way) over are quite simply too long.

  2. I definitely agree with this, the thought of trying to force my book to be more than 200k makes my head hurt. I’d have to put in all sorts of crap just to puff it up.

  3. This is true that you only need to write a book that’s as long as it needs to be to make your story work. Never bloat your work for the purpose of bloating it.
    I don’t think many writers naturally write the mega novel length of 200k+ words. For one, these fatties are usually full of characters and multiple protagonists. They also tend to be slow builds to a quick climax. A lot of readers hate builds that are too slow. Take a look at amazon and you’ll see a lot of complaints about how books of this length are “too long” and “nothing happened for 300 pages.” Of course, things happen, but it can be hard to sit through a book of that length when you’re not sure the ending is worth it.
    I always gravitated towards fatter books. because of that, I write on the lengthier side. It’s what I read most often and I’m not great at keeping things brief. I don’t struggle to make a book fat. I’m actually practicing writing shorter books because there is a whole audience who prefers that.

  4. Pingback: Camp NaNoWriMo, Day 25 | The Claire Violet Thorpe Express

  5. Pingback: “EXACTLY” HOW LONG A CHAPTER SHOULD BE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  6. Pingback: FOLLOWING UP | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  7. Pingback: BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  8. yes! someone with the same thought!
    I really like fat books just to grab them like they are a puppy.
    But in my writing, my fantasy WIP is 80k and i’m thinking, is it too short?
    To grab an agent, a big fat novel could be a disadvantage but in fantasy look alike everyone likes fat books.
    I still dunno.

  9. Nigel Gleeson says:

    G’day,
    I am 200 000 words into my book and have another couple of chapters to go before finishing the first draft. I expect it to end around 215 000 +. It will be interesting to see what my trial readers think of it when it is finished. I am writing it for two reasons, one I am thoroughly enjoying the journey, and two it began as a short example to another writer and on popular demand has become a book in itself. Would be nice to publish but the story comes first. I write to create.
    Fineen
    http://irelandcalls.com/banshees-lament.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s