Should Visionary Novels Avoid Being Thick?

For you, how long is too long for any sort of book, whether nonfiction, visionary fiction or any other fiction genre? And if you do crack the pages of a thicker novel, what keeps you reading, despite its length?
on Mar 24, 2011 · No comments

Yesterday I reached 100,000 words of my novel-in-progress — about a young man, in search of his family, who because of his miraculous gift is drawn into a seemingly greater story about him as the savior of his own world. This novel’s projected length is 140,000 words.

And that almost bothers me. Because similar-length novels have previously put me off.

Published by Crossway, this could be the biggest study Bible ever.

Once upon a time the mere size of The Lord of the Rings books was intimidating to me; and yes, I’m ashamed to admit it. When the first of the films was about to release, that drove me to delve into Fellowship of the Ring in advance of viewing the film version (and fortunately I had already begun The Two Towers and wasn’t spoiled about the first film’s ending).

Yet should I be ashamed to admit I balked at first? Some long books just seem intimidating. Even the Bible, a very large and complex book, can seem intimidating simply because of its size — and especially if you have the massive ESV Study Bible.

For comparison, the "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" hardcover — almost as thick as the ESV Study Bible.

So why did all the later Harry Potter novels get away with being massive? Children snapped them up and weren’t intimidated. Not once did I hear in all the press coverage of Potter’s popularity an interview with a reader who said, “eh, I lost interest when they got so long, starting with Goblet of Fire.” Rowling’s narratives kept even heavier copies selling and more pages turning. The same is true for other visionary fiction with external girth, such as The Silmarillion — another book that once intimidated me, partly because of its size.

And yet here I am writing novels beyond what I’ve heard is the “standard” 100,000 words. This has helped me grow to love the freedom and challenge of filling this space with what I hope will be all essential character-and-plot-driven material. No, I don’t just want to write longer out of supposed brilliance — like an essayist trying to fulfill a 15-page limit by any means. Here I’m hoping journalism-based habits — keep it short, to the point — will help.

You’ll notice that’s what I’ve tried here. Some of my columns, also, have been quite long …

So for you, how long is too long for any sort of book, whether nonfiction, visionary fiction or any other fiction genre? And if you do crack the pages of a thicker novel, what keeps you reading, despite its length?

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Steve Taylor says:

    Large books can also intimidate me, not because they are large but because if they aren’t very good I’ll be stuck reading a book for a longer period of time that I don’t want really to read. This said, a 100 page book is too long if it stinks and a 800 page book is too short if it’s really good.
    An author can write a trilogy, which is one huge book in three parts. Most people don’t seem to mind that. It seems to be easier to stop reading it after book one if it’s not that good.
    With the invention of the e-reader your length concerns should diminish. All files look the same and if 500 pages is too long then make the font smaller and make it 300.

  2. Marion says:


    I actually have the ESV Study Bible as my main Bible. It’s big!!! LOL!

    Now, I’m currently re-reading Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright and this underground utopian classic is over 1000 pages long.

    I recently finished reading Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and it’s about 700 pages long. and my favorite novel, David Copperfield, is about 800 pages long.

    So what’s keep me interested in reading fat novels. Good storytelling, interesting characters and a plot or storyline that can hold it together.

    It doesn’t matter about the size…but there has to be something that keeps me interested if I’m in to invest a week or two on a huge novel.


    • I actually have the ESV Study Bible as my main Bible. It’s big!!! LOL!

      Yeah, since receiving it I haven’t even brought it outside the house. I use a backup Bible or two for transport elsewhere, such as to church events!

      Good storytelling, interesting characters and a plot or storyline that can hold it together. [… T]here has to be something that keeps me interested if I’m in to invest a week or two on a huge novel.

      Marion, that brings to mind another angle I had not considered — for Christian readers, are these motivations enough to keep us picking up and reading even the very thick Bible (nonfiction, though much more visionary!)?

  3. Esther says:

    The thickness of a book will never keep me from reading it. I know people who judge a book by it’s thickness, but I do not understand that mindset–though I fear it is engendered in our public school system, whether intentionally or not. But that’s a rabbit trail.

    It doesn’t matter to me whether a novel is 100 pages or 100,ooo, or 140,o00 for that matter. What makes me put a book down can happen in 5 pages or less. What makes me keep reading would keep me reading for 400,000 pages.

    At the end of the best novels I have read, I find in myself several reactions–listed in no specific order; a wish that the story would continue; at the same time, a deep satisfaction that all is well and turned out just as it should have; a new perspective on life in general instigated from the creativity of the author in presenting the story; a delight in the new images now populating my mental gallery which can be accessed and pondered and enjoyed for as long as I remember the book/story; a joy in realizing that few very pithy and appropriate quotes from the novel will embed themselves into my vocabulary.

    Because of other considerations–i.e., the nature of words and their meanings, and the nature of time, its brevity and the admonition of scripture that we must redeem the time–I believe every single word should count in a novel or any reading material. If you can make it shorter, and say the same thing (maybe even say it better!), then make it shorter. It’ll probably make for a better story anyway.

    • Kaci says:

      See, and I’m weird. I’ve seen 700 page books that could easily have had 100 pages shaved off, and I’ve seen 250 page books that could’ve stood to add said hundred.

  4. Kaci says:

    Haha. I’m loving the ESV STudy/Deathly Hallows comparison. Wordcount limit’s a peeve of mine, so I probably shouldn’t say much. I think what really bothers me is that what most people consider YA, I was reading in 4th&5th grade, and I was reading 400 page novels in 6th grade.

    And that’s…really all I should say for the time being. 0=)

  5. Kaci and others: among books I’ve read, particularly in visionary genres, one recurring problem that seems more prevalent than the others are books that read like “compressed epics.” Like the theme, setting and characters are powerful enough to carry the story forward, with relevant subplots, for at least a third longer or even twice the length — but the author writes in a hurry, leaves many things unexplored, and forsakes what would have been some amazing explorations, complex yet readable.

    “Compressed epic” — that style in part brought down the recent Voyage of the Dawn Treader film, and it’s sadly brought down a few visionary novels I’ve read.

    • Kaci says:

      I haven’t seen the movie. But VTD was pretty short, anyway, wasn’t it? Do you have some other examples of “compressed epics”?

  6. Luther says:

    If it is well written it does not matter the WordCount to me. If poorly written it should be short…that is why everything I write is extremely short

  7. Luther says:

    Forgot to subscribe….sorry

  8. Fred Warren says:

    I find a large book has a longer useful life. Instead of being read and discarded, it has practical value as a doorstop or for keeping the other books on my shelf upright.

    Seriously, it’s all about the quality of the work between the covers. I’ve read thin paperbacks I wanted to shred after a few pages and and massive tomes that consumed the better part of a week because I couldn’t put them down. Genre isn’t so much of a factor. Interesting characters, tight pacing, and an original setting make an irresistible combination for me.

  9. Esther says:

    ^^^I think that’s what I said…

    but with much less humor and interest, lol!

  10. Sarah Sawyer says:

    I’m comforted to learn of another speculative writer working on a longer-than-average project. My current WIP is 130,000 words and still expanding some. It may get trimmed some once my critique partners give their input, but it may not.

    As a reader, I anticipate longer novels because I love being immersed in a book and world I enjoy for an extended period of time…and I love stories large enough in scope to justify a greater length. Therefore, I’ve never run into a book that I’ve been reluctant to read because of length. Of course, if I’m not enjoying a book (long or short), I’ll put it down after only a few pages.

  11. When I was teaching junior highers, I had some students select the shortest book they could find for their book report — never mind genre or any other factor. They were not readers and just wanted the experience to be over!

    Readers don’t care about a book’s length. I don’t think that has ever entered into my decision what to read.

    Publishers, however, are in another category — at least traditional publishers.

    I had an agent tell me to divide book three of my trilogy because I estimated it to be 150,000 (book 1 – 85,000, book 2 – 120,000) and he said no publisher would be interested. At first I balked but later relented. Now my trilogy is a quadlogy. 😉

    The issue is money. Big books are more expensive to produce. And for new authors, it’s a big risk. Of course, the book will cost the customer more, too, and readers may be less willing to fork out $15 instead of $10 for a 750 page book by an author they’ve never heard of.

    Will the new publishing models and new technology change this? Time will tell.


    • Erica says:


      Interesting analysis! I think Stephenie Meyer, author of Twilight pulled that one off and perhaps J. K. Rowling. I heard that Stephenie Meyer almost did not get one of her books published because it went over 700(?), I think it was 700…

  12. Ken Rolph says:

    If a book is too big you risk dropping it in the bath.

  13. Steve Taylor says:

    Obviously your children can’t pick locks like mine.

    • Ken Rolph says:

      Our son is a professor of law at Sydney University, currently travelling the world on sabbatical. Our daughter is a scene of crime officer with the Major Crime Squad in Sydney. She could probably pick the lock. However, I do feel safe in the bath at night. The grandkids are currently under 3 and the ones who can move on their own are in bed by 7 pm. The bathroom door is a bifold with a high handle. The inside toilet door is a sliding one with a broken lock. I did mean to get it fixed, but never got around to it during that bried interval of grown up kids with no children. I think I might have to get it fixed if I want to keep up my reading.

      • Steve Taylor says:

        LOL. For me I take my hammock and find one of the strategically placed locations hidden on my twelve acres. I set it up, grab the book and can read for hours. My kids are too young to roam outside on their own and I always forget to bring my cell phone with me. Peace ensues and reading gets done. I only do this once a week so everyone is happy.
        BTW – Why do latches on sliding doors NEVER work?

  14. Erica says:

    For me, the thicker the book, the better so as I may enjoy a long journey from here. Now, if the book is spec fic, or nonfiction it doesn’t matter. But what will hold my interest are well developed characters and an amazing plot. I’ve read some absorbing thick books(the Bible is one) and short books which did not hold me captive. In fact, soon I will be reading Wendy Alec’s book Book 3: Son of Perdition and that book is awesome and hefty! Wohoo!

  15. Kirsty says:

    I prefer long books.
    I finish short books too quickly, and then have to find another to read.
    Also, when you get near the end of a book, it is always tempting to ‘just finish it because I’m almost there anyway’, even if I should be doing something else. So the shorter the book, the more often that happens and the more time is wasted!

  16. Kirsty says:

    Ooooh – there’s a wee timer that allows me to edit or delete my comment if I do it within 5 minutes. How useful!

What do you think?