In the world of creative fiction, great stories come in all sizes and styles. You’ve probably read best-selling novels and breezed through some action-packed short stories. But did you know there is a beautiful middle ground? Poke around the book stacks and you are bound to find a story that fits in between these two genres. Enter: the novella.
Let’s take a look at what defines a novella, and what makes them so unique.
The length of a novella
A novella is defined as a work of narrative fiction that runs between 20,000 and 50,000 words (the average is around 30,000). Once a story exceeds 50,000 words, it is entering novel territory. On the flip side, anything between 10,000 and 20,000 words would be considered a novelette (it sounds too cute to be real, but it is an actual category of fiction writing).
What is the difference between a short story, a novella, and a novel?
If the short story had a big sister, it would be the novella. Short stories are usually only a few thousand words long and are designed to be read in one sitting, whereas novellas require more time and attention. Fiction genres are typically distinguished by word count, but you can also think of the average short story as 10 to 25 pages, and the average novella as 100 to 150 pages. That makes a novella short enough to get through in an afternoon, with a break or two. A standard novel is 250 to 300 pages, so you may need a few days to get cover to cover.
In terms of structure, a novella features more conflicts and plot development than a short story, but fewer subplots than a novel. Even though novellas may follow a traditional story arc and create the same kind of unifying effect that short stories are known for, they often lack the complexity and multiple perspectives found in novels.
The history of the novella
The term “novella” comes from the Italian word for “new.” From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (1350 – 1600), Italian and French authors published collections of 70 to 100 tales and dubbed these individual stories novellas (the first volume was Boccaccio’s Decameron). These early works did not resemble the novella as we know it today, but the genre continued to evolve.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, German writers had a new definition of the novella—a fictional narrative that revolves around a single conflict or dramatic event, with a clear turning point and a logical yet unexpected ending. Many classic European novellas that are used in today’s classrooms emerged during this era: Voltaire’s Candide, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
Different types of novellas and examples
Similar to novels and short stories, novellas may be written in a variety of styles, on a range of subject matter or themes. These are just a few prominent examples of novellas.
Gothic literature: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Science fiction: The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (1895)
Political satire/allegory: Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945)
Mystery: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson (1962)
Historical fiction: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)
Children’s literature: The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
Autobiographical: The Lover, Marguerite Duras (1984)
Publishing a novella
Novellas present a unique challenge for writers and editors. They are typically too long to publish in a literary journal, and too short to compete alongside more substantial novels on the new release shelf. Even though Joseph Conrad saw his 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, first appear as a three-part serial in a magazine, today’s authors are rarely so lucky. Commercial publishers often shy away from novellas, because readers will not pay hardcover prices for a slim volume of work.
A great solution is to self-publish a novella. That way you can have complete creative control over the design process, set your own deadlines, and make your own decisions about distributing your book locally or internationally.
Well-known and famous novellas
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka (1915)
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (1937)
The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952)
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1983)
Home, Toni Morrison (2012)