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The Curious Case of the Novella

by Tom Ashford

There was a post on the SPF Facebook Community page the other day, asking whether a 10,000 word story was enough to classify it as a novella (rather than a novel or a short story). Most considered it to be a “novelette” rather than a novella, but encouraged the author to publish it anyway. Although a reader would undoubtably be disappointed to discover a story was only forty pages long when they were expecting three hundred, they certainly won’t care which fancy word you attempt to label the product us.

Nobody, outside of writing circles, has heard of a novelette. I imagine most would prefer to keep it that way.

For those not up-to-date on these literary definitions, the cut-off points are (apparently) as follows:

NOVEL: 40,000+ words

NOVELLA: 17,500 to 39,999 words

NOVELETTE: 7,500 to 17,499 words

SHORT STORY: 7,499 words or less

Other definitions describe a novella as “longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel”, which isn’t really a lot to go on. However, although a certain word count expectation is arguably inseparable from the concept of a novella, it’s also arguable that the concept behind a novella has little to do with word counts at all.

Climb back off your indignant horses. Let me explain.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Germans (and other European cultures) started looking at the novella as a literary genre in its own right. For the Germans, a novella was a fictional narrative of indeterminate length – whether it ran to a few pages or a few hundred – that was based around a single event, situation or conflict (often with an unexpected twist).

That is to say, that a novella had a certain style and purpose – although by nature of their stories they may have run to shorter lengths, that wasn’t their defining characteristic. George Fetherling (author of the novella Tales of Two Cities), said that to reduce the novella to nothing more than a short novel is like “insisting that a pony is a baby horse.”

Robert Silverberg went further, describing the novella as:

“one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms… it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.”

I’m aware that we’re at risk of getting closer to pretentiousness here, not further away. But you only have to look at some famous examples of novellas (or are they?) to notice that word counts aren’t always consistent.

Animal Farm is a novella. So is Of Mice and Men. Heart of Darkness, too (but at 38,000 words, only just). And yet people consider Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to be a “short novel”, not a “novella”, because of the way it’s structured and written (not to mention because he was the master of keeping things short). But The Old Man and the Sea is only 27,000 words long. Going by word counts, that’s unquestionably a novella.

On the other hand, Stephen King considers his story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption to be a novella, as seems to everyone else. Yet the hardback edition comes in at 181 pages – if we estimate there to be 250 words on a page (and it’s quite possible there are more), that comes in at 45,000 words. I know that Mr. King’s books tend to run on the insanely long side, but that doesn’t mean that a novella for him isn’t a novel by everyone else’s standards.

But the reason it is a novella, and why The Old Man and the Sea is a novel?

The way the stories are structured. The Old Man and the Sea is a novel because of the way the story is plotted – the only reason it’s so short is because Hemingway trimmed his words like an absolute madman. Likewise, Shawshank is a novella because it centres around a simple, central premise and explores that more deeply than a traditional novel might allow – the reason it’s so long is because that’s the way Stephen King tends to write.

As mentioned before – the reader won’t care about any of this. All they want is a good story, and a fair price for it. But if us authors are destined to debate word counts and definitions until the last writer draws his or her dying breath, we may as well focus on form rather than quantity.

Or we can just say that a novella is defined as a written piece of roughly 17,500 to 39,999 words. That’s fine too.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.