The dictionary definition of “novella” is “a fictional prose narrative that is longer and more complex than a short story; a short novel.” Novellas are generally between 20,000 and 40,000 words, with over 40,000 being a novel and under 20,000 being a novelette or a short story. Some literary types leave out the novelette altogether, considering it a “genre” construct, and declare a novella is between 10,000 and 40,000 words. By that definition, some books you likely studied in English class are considered novellas:
- Animal Farm
- A Christmas Carol
- Lord of the Flies
- The Call of the Wild
- The Pearl
- Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
- The Old Man and the Sea
The term “novella” is said to have originated between 1900 and 1905, but there were short works published well before that time. They were likely considered to be either long short stories or short novels. Novellas as a literary device likely have their origins in Italian literature of the early Renaissance. Indeed, “novella” is an Italian-derived word. Some scholars consider Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353) as the first examples of novellas. The Decameron contains 10 stories called novellas, all dealing with different characters’ experiences as they flee the Black Death.
A novella’s story has fewer conflicts than a novel, but it’s more complicated than a short story. In a novella, you have more “time” to develop story, conflict, and characters, but it’s generally preferred that a novella be readable in a single session. However, the definition of what is acceptable as a novella is subjective and can differ from editor to editor.
After he tried selling novellas, Stephen King described them as “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.” Then, he grouped four novellas into a collection titled Different Seasons (a 1982 bestseller) and eased up on his disdain for them. The reason novellas are difficult to sell to publishers is the length; publishers can’t charge as much as they do for a full-length novel, and they simply aren’t profitable. However, if you’re interested in a quick read, novellas fit the bill.
I enjoy them a great deal–to read and to write.
Novellas and Me
I first became interested in writing a novella when I had a short story workshopped. The instructor’s critique indicated that the story itself was “too big” for a short story and that I should try expanding it to a novella–an unusual suggestion for a workshop, where you’re usually told to cut words. So, I gave it a try, and the result was my first novella, The Yellow Scarf, published in 2015.
I was so enraptured by the format, I wrote a second one. Well, I had started what I thought was going to be a novel, but I and it ran out of steam. After my first experience with a novella, I quickly recognized the story I wanted to tell didn’t need a novel’s amount of words, but a novella’s amount fit it perfectly. And that became my second published novella, My Noble Enemy.
I would go on to combine two novelettes into a novella, A Change for the Better, published in 2020, followed by using outtakes from a trilogy to write another novella, Dateline: Belgrade, also published in 2020.
It’s a format I’ll likely use again.
Pros and Cons
Aside from publishers not particularly liking novellas, there are few disadvantages to this form–in my opinion. Every one of us writers who has tried a short story and given up because we’ve exceeded the word limit can benefit from writing a novella. And it also hones your craft as well. If you don’t think you have a novel in you, a novella may be either good practice or a stepping stone to a novel.
Remember, in a novella, you still have to have a plot, albeit not an overly complex one, well-developed characters, and the arc of a story: triggering event, rising action, crisis, denouement, etc. So, a disadvantage could be that you have to restrain your story, but if you’re struggling with that, you might have a novel within you instead. Similarly, if you find yourself stretching the story to make a novella’s word length, you might only have a short story or novelette.
Today, in the digital era, publishers are looking at novellas a bit differently. When you have readers clamoring for the next installment in a series, a novella can “tide them over” until a novel is ready. I have a writer friend whose publisher requested she do exactly that: write a novella to be published midway between two books in her series, so she did.
And…readers complained it was too short. I personally believe that was because her publisher didn’t market it as a novella but as part of the author’s ongoing series.
Luckily, none of my readers have made that complaint on any of my novellas. They have said they want more, but that’s been expressed in a positive way.
How do you tell if a book is a novella if you can’t “see” the word count? If a book’s page count is around 100 pages, certainly no more than 200 pages, it’s likely 20,000 to <40,000 words and a novella.
In addition to tiding a reader over, a novella is a good way to introduce readers to your work or to introduce a new character to your cannon.
A novella is a versatile literary form, and I’d encourage you to try reading one, especially if you don’t have a whole day to devote to reading. And, well, two of mine happen to be on sale.