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How long should a Sword & Sorcery short story be?

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One of the great things about our crazy Amazon-driven book world is that book length matters less than it used to. In the world of the 1790s, books had to be triple decker novels. During the Age of the Storytellers (as Mike Ashley calls it), for A. Conan Doyle and the crowd of story writers that filled the new magazines, 6-9000 words was the target. Pulps, paperbacks, and now online publishing, have all dictated to the length of works. It is only now, when an ebook is a file, no different than any other file, that we seem to be free from these constraints.

Art by John Buscema and Alfred Alcala
 

I think we can all agree, first off, any story needs to be as long as it needs to be to be told well. As Ben Peek, author of Black Sheep says, “Honestly, I don’t really think there is an ideal length. Depends on the work, on the ideas behind it, and how long and short that all is.” John R. Fultz, author of Seven Princes, agrees: “I’d say there is no ideal length–it’s whatever the story will support–and whatever the author feels comfortable writing. Or David Bain with: “the one that tells the story.” The nature of any story should determine its length.” Despite this, I still think there is a sweet spot for Sword & Sorcery. It might not be the same as Space Opera or a Western or even a novel of manners.

Perhaps the father of Sword & Sorcery can help. Robert E. Howard is the acknowledged creator of all-things Conan and Kull. His Fantasy fiction ranged from shorter pieces to one full-length novel, Hour of the Dragon (1935) at 73,000 words. All the original Weird Tales Conan stories are either novelettes (7500 to 17500) or novellas (17500-40,000). The original Conan saga averages out at 18,500 words a story. 


In 1973, Lin Carter edited the first of five volumes in the Flashing Swords (1973-1981) series. These anthologies of original novellas featured (usually) four stories of 15,000 words each. As Carter put it: “A charming editrix, Gail Morrison of Dell Books, liked the idea and requested an original 15,000 worder from each of us, that being, in the opinion of many writers, just about the best length for a good story.”

I had very much in mind Carter’s format when I created the Swords of Fire anthology, which features four 15,000-ish tales from David A. Hardy, C. J. Burch, Jack Mackenzie and myself. One of these days, there will be a Swords of Fire 2, and hopefully 3 and 4…. because I have such a love for Sword & Sorcery novellas. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I need to think differently about this for the next one.

I’ve asked a host of writers of heroic fantasy writers (I think “host’ is the right term here, you know, like a murder of crows) what they prefer.

The Really Short Story

Marcie Tentchoff: I’ll always have a fondness for flash fiction, even in heroic fantasy. And heroic fantasy novels often end up becoming a series, which makes word count less important.

Short Story

Robin Wayne Bailey, author of the Frost trilogy and Swords Against the Shadowland: “For novels or stories, the complexity of the story always dictates the length. I don’t think you can declare a specific word-limit “ideal.” For marketing purposes, most anthologies require around 6,000 words or less. Much more than that should probably be discussed with the editor. I’ve written s&s stories as short as (roughly) 4,000 word and as long as 10,000 words.”

Lillian Csernica: I like 8k. Depends on the story, of course.

Michael Ehart, author of The Servant of the Manythcore: “I have always enjoyed reading and writing in the 5000 word range for short stories. The pulp flavor is lost in a longer piece. There are important exceptions, of course.”

Howard Andrew Jones: At least 5 or 6k. I think it CAN be done at shorter length, but I think many of my faves come in at 8k or longer. Of course, as editor 8k is about my max, so I therefore like to say 5 to 8k.

Warren Lapine, most recently editor of Fantastic Stories says:  “3k on the Internet. At Fantastic Stories we found that far fewer people read the longer stories and articles. That said, if it takes more it takes more, and year end stuff can be different.”

James Lecky, frequent contributor to Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Black Gate, says: “To use an old fallback, I’d say it depends on the story in question. But, on a more personal level, I like a short that runs to 4 or 5 thousand, which gives scope for both character and action. When it comes to novels I prefer the ‘classic’ model – most of Moorcock’s novels were fairly short by modern standards (about 50,000 words at a guess) and I reckon that’s about right when the primary purpose is colorful adventure rather than soul-searching drama.”


Darrell Schweitzer, Fantasy author and editor: “There are very few short-shorts, but it can be anything from a short story to a multi-volume epic. I certainly have written sword & sorcery stories under 3000 words. Robert Jordan represents the other end of the spectrum. There is no one answer. Any story should be as long as it needs to be.”

Jason M. Waltz, author of Writing Fantasy Heroes: “Good question to which I don’t have a straight answer. I don’t think it lends itself to novel length – I think S&S can be in novels, can even infuse a novel, but I don’t think it can be effectively sustained through the novel length. I think great S&S can be carried through the novella and novelette and I would not be adverse to reading such works by anyone claiming to have done so. So that leaves the short story; I’ve read great S&S at 2,000 words and at 9,000, but I’m going to say I personally prefer the 5-7k range. Does that make it the ideal? How about for me, yes.”

Novella

Seth Lindberg, author of the Dyscrasia series: “Short story to novella (5 to 20k words) I really like the novella or short novel length for sword and sorcery. Generally a novel should be no longer than 65,000 to 70,000 words. For novella’s, 20,000 to 35,000. I like S&S short stories a lot too. Great lengths are 6,000 to 10,000.”

John O’Neil, editor of Black Gate: “Well, I love novellas. I’d have to say 10,000-20,000 words.”

Joshua Reynolds, Warhammer novelist: “I think anywhere from 5 – 10,000 is a good solid length, that allows for character development, atmosphere and action. Most of my S&S fiction tends to fall into the 6,000 range, which is the sweet spot for me.”

Best-selling author, Michael A. Stackpole: “Don’t want to sound flip, but whatever length the story demands. For me, right now, I like working in the novella range 7K+ words. Give me room for character development and a strong plot.”

C. L. Werner, another Warhammer novelist: “I think for a short story, you should be shooting for between 5,000 words and 10,000. That said, Howard himself used to make longer-form pieces that moved just as fast as any shorter narrative.”

Davidy Hardy: I am partial to the 10K novella. It’s a pretty neglected form these days, though electronic publishing gives you more freedom. Back to my point, novellas give you room to develop the setting, while maintaining focus on the action. It was an optimum for Howard, Leiber, Moorcock and others who helped create Heroic Fantasy. They worked in the pulps where tight restrictions on length were common. REH, Leiber & Moorcock were also strong enough to swing headline spots with a more generous word count. Clark Ashton Smith created some real gems with fewer words, and of course Tolkein famously wrote a trilogy. But I find very few who can match their unique talents in those forms.

Short Novel

Valerie Frankel: “I love big 600 pagers.”

Scottish Horror and Fantasy author, Willie Meikle: “Around the 50-60K mark for me, like all those Moorcock ones.”


Peter Welmerink, co-author of Bedlam Unleashed: “For “lengthy” piece I’d say anywhere from 45 to 90k words. That’s just me. I like reading shorter pieces, but writing…I can’t do Robert Jordan-sized scrawls…plus I’d lose interest, I think, if reading such a volume. I have always been a fan of short fantasy tales. They have to hit on all cylinders throughout the entire piece to be good.”

E. P. Berglund: The ideal length for heroic fantasy . . . hm. As a writer I would have to say it depends on the plot; as a reader I would say between short story and novelette length. Some of the Conan in the 60s and 70s were kind of hard to get through. I don’t really read heroic fantasy much anymore.

Jack Mackenzie, author of “The Green Beast” says: “Sword and Sorcery tales need to move fast. They’re lean tales that don’t have a lot of space for interpersonal transactions or political minutiae. Something like Game of Thrones ( if you want to consider it Sword and Sorcery) is obviously an outlier. For me I go by Robert E. Howard. His longest Conan tales are around 75,000 words. That’s about the longest I would go, personally. Any more and you risk boring your reader, which is something that S&S should never do.”

Full Novel

CJ Cherryh: I’d say a ‘direct’ plot, few subplots, and no more than 100,000 words. Readers want to get to the un-tangle with little baggage and have a main character who’s a rogue with a sense of honor, or at least honest determination.


David Farland: “I kind of like longish books in fantasy–225,000 words feels good to me Any shorter, and I want more.”

James A. Moore, Fantasy and Horror novelist: “That’s a tough call. I normally average right at 100,000 words per novel, but mostly I write series, so, you know, 400,000 and 300,000 respectively if you add the series together, But mostly I aim at 100,00 because much longer gets unwieldy.”

Robert E. Vardeman, author of many excellent heroic fantasy novels in the 1990s, and more recently the novelization of God of War: “The 75k length works for me. Long enough to get things done without getting boring and destroying yet another forest.”

Angeline Hawkes: I think it’s hard to have an extremely short story in the heroic fiction genre — because most plots are quest-driven. Unless the story is entirely earth-based, there also has to be some world building or at least character development so the story doesn’t seem cookie-cutter. So, I would say a good length for a short story would be 6-10k, and a novel would be a minimum of 80k. I know “back in the day” a lot of writers cranked out 40k “novels”, but I think the 20-40k range now falls mostly into novella lengths. I also think that most heroic fantasy works tend to be action-driven so the work (if written well) reads fast, if you know what I mean. So what might seem longish and, perhaps, more tedious to read in a longer length in another genre, seems over much too soon in heroic fantasy.

Charles Gramlich, author of the Talera Cycle and editor of The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E, Howard Studies: “I really like the novella or short novel length for sword and sorcery. Generally a novel should be no longer that 65,000 to 70,000 words. For novellas, 20,000 to 35,000. I like S & S short stories a lot too. Great lengths are 6,000 to 10,000.”

Perhaps we are all like Angeline and Charles. We like them all, as long as they are awesome tales of heroes and monsters and fantastic worlds. Whatever your favorite length is, remember to support your favorite authors. 

 

See Also

Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery
The Scarlet Citadel, by Robert Howard
Phoenix on the Sword, by Robert E. Howard 
The Frost Giant's Daughter, by Robert E. Howard
List of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian Stories
When does Conan the Barbarian become public domain?

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