Do you prefer writing and finishing something quickly or taking a bit longer? Some writers prefer the scope of a novel and dislike the constraints of the short story, while others feel the opposite way. In between the two forms are the novelette and novella.
It can be difficult to define an acceptable length for a short story, novella or novelette, so you may not know which category your story belongs in. Is it too long or too short? Why does it matter?
In this article, we’ll go through the lengths of short stories, novellas, and novelettes; compare the three forms; and note examples of short stories, novellas, and novelettes.
Word Counts For Short Stories, Novellas And Novelettes
- Short story: over 1,000 words, usually less than 10,000.
- Novelette: 7,500 to 19,000 words.
- Novella: 10,000 to 40,000 words.
As you can see there’s an overlap between a short story and a novelette. Also, between a novelette and a novella. We’ll examine these later in the article. Shorter stories can hold just as much power as longer pieces, and they too have meaning and resonance. The content is the most important thing. Success does not depend on the number of words, though word count may be important in certain circumstances.
Why Is Word Count Important?
Word count is a huge part of how short stories, novellas, and novelettes are separated and defined. So why is it so important?
One consideration in terms of word count is the cost to the publisher. The longer the story the more time required to read and edit it. If printed, the length of the story also affects the outlay required. For an anthology consisting of works by different writers, it makes sense for the publisher to choose shorter pieces for inclusion. In that way not only do they appeal to more readers, but they also have space to include more writers, and thus more people are invested in the anthology’s success. An example is an anthology published by Christopher Fielden called 81 Words. The challenge was to write a story in exactly 81 words. It consists of 1000 stories by 1000 authors, with profits going to the Arkbound Foundation. All for a good cause.
Publishers may also have difficulty marketing shorter fiction. Although it seems short story collections and novellas are gaining in popularity, the novel always seems to take precedence in terms of easier marketing and categories.
Just as novels are labelled in different genres and sub-genres, not all short stories are the same. The nature of the writing could have a bearing on the length.
Literary stories tend to be longer and more introspective. Other genres, such as horror or crime, may, or may not, be shorter and more action-packed.
3. Reader Fatigue
It’s said that these days, with technology and our collective struggle with delayed gratification, concentration has diminished. In this regard, shorter stories are very accessible. Some stories can be read in minutes, making them the perfect read for those on the move. If stories are too long, the reader may become bored. Stories need to be engaging right from the start. With a novel, there is more space for preamble, but the short story, novella or novelette needs to get to the point. Faster.
Shorter stories, with their limited scale and number of characters, are easier to adapt for the screen and may appeal more to film directors, according to Screencraft. It makes sense. Fewer scenes and settings, fewer actors required. Think Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.
So, length and purpose are interrelated and we need to look closer at the definitions and word counts for short stories, novellas and novelettes.
How Long Is A Short Story?
A short story can be described as a story that can be read in one sitting, unlike a novel that may take days.
A short story will have a limited number of characters. With a short story, there’s no room for a complex plot. The narrative needs to be concise. Setting the scene in vast detail is a luxury kept for the novel. Economy is everything.
Some stories take one incident and examine it in detail. Others have a discernible beginning, middle and end. Often in a short story, the ending will reflect the beginning in some way. The character may have changed, gained some insight into their situation, or become involved in the action. Or, the story may have a nebulous ending, leaving much to the reader’s imagination.
Some short stories are under 1,000 words. Often these are described as flash fiction.
The most famous short story is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, a master at crafting tales. You’ll probably have heard of it.
For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.Ernest Hemingway
Why is that acceptable as a short story when it’s only six words long? There’s no character development, no description of the setting, no plot and yet there’s a story there – the story behind the words which the reader can imagine. Beauvais talks about the ‘readerly gap’ in reference to picture books. I’d argue that leaving the ‘readerly gap’ is essential in any writing. Short story writing at its best excels in this. What is omitted is left to the imagination of the reader.
Most short stories seem to be between 1,500 words and 7,500 words long so about 3- 30 pages long (a typical printed page is somewhere between 250 and 450 words) depending on font and print formatting. Also, pages of dialogue may have fewer words, which affects length too.
In some cases, the reader judges the length of a story by the number of pages to estimate how long it will take to read. Often websites will give a reading time linked to their stories. A five-minute read is about average.
In terms of pages, looking at collections of short stories, these also vary in length from three to thirty pages. If you look at some of the great classic storytellers, they had a varied word count in their short stories.
Examples Of Short Story Lengths And Word Counts:
- Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House is just over 700 words. About two or three pages.
- One of These Days by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is shy of 1,000 words. About three pages.
- Why Don’t you Dance by Raymond Carver is just over 1,600 words and an estimated five pages.
- Hearts and Minds by Jack Petrubi is less than 2,000 words. Six pages.
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe is a similar length at just over 2,000 words.
- A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is over 3000 words. This is often produced with illustrations as a child’s book, but printed pages would be about nine or ten pages long.
- A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury is about 4,300 words long and around fifteen pages.
- Award winning story The Edge of the Shoal by Cynan Jones is about 6,000 words and around twenty-five pages.
- Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro is 11,000 words long and about thirty pages.
- To All Their Dues by Wendy Erskine is almost 11,000 words long. This could fit into the category of a novelette and is included in her story collection.
This would seem to indicate that length is not that important, but is that true? There will be times when the length of your story will have importance. If you are entering a competition where a word count is stipulated, for example.
How Long Is A Novella?
A novella is sometimes described as a short novel. The word derives from the Italian, meaning new. It usually has one character and one plotline. It will typically not be divided into chapters although there may be sub-divisions. For example, the aforementioned To All Their Dues by Wendy Erskine is sub-divided into three parts with three protagonists. This makes it more akin to a novelette.
Novellas tend to follow a linear structure with the main action centred on the protagonist’s development. This could be an inner conflict that is resolved or simply explored, rather than a series of events. Due to brevity, there isn’t the scope for several sub-plots or settings although some elements of the novel may have some complexity.
The word count ranges from 10,000 to 40,000 words. It may contain between 100-200 pages. The usual length is over 17,500 words which enables more depth of character and plot development. Novellas are often published as part of a short story collection as a novella is difficult to publish except perhaps in terms of an e-book due to financial considerations explained previously.
Examples Of Novella Lengths And Word Counts:
Many of these are quite famous and have been made into films.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is 29,550 words and 107 pages
- Animal Farm by George Orwell is 36,000 words and 144 pages
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is 40,750 words and 163 pages
- Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is 36,000 words and 144 pages
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is 28,000 words and 112 pages
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is 32,000 words and 128 pages
- Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is 29,000 words and 116 pages
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is 40,000 words and 160 pages
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman is 44,000 words and 176 pages
As with the short story examples, these vary in length. The Julian Barnes novella tips the scales at over 40,000. Also regarded as a novella is Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is a hefty 52,000 words and 208 pages long.
How Long Is A Novelette?
If the novella is the younger sibling of the novel, then the novelette falls somewhere in between a short story and a novella.
With a word count of around 7,500-19,000 words, the novelette borders both the top end of a short story and the length usually acceptable for a novella. As with the short story and the novella, writers may be constricted in terms of the number of characters they can use and the amount of plot development they can include.
The plot will probably be linear and uncomplicated with few, or no, sub-plots. One or two characters will feature – not a cast of hundreds. It will have a defined focus and will be complete as a story. The novelette enables writers to give more flesh to the bones of their short story, though the writing still needs to be concise.
Examples Of Novelette Lengths And Word Counts:
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is 11,500 words and 46 pages
- Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is 14,000 words and 56 pages
- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is 13,500 words and 54 pages
- The Spectacles by Edgar Allan Poe is 9,200 words and 35 pages
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is 16,500 words and 65 pages
As you can see there are examples here that are widely regarded as novellas. Distinguishing between these forms can be difficult and confusing. This may mean you end up editing your story, to make it longer or shorter, depending on the market you’re trying to appeal to, and where you want to publish it.
Writing Shorter Stories
It’s important as a writer to understand the different lengths and styles of these different types of writing.
It can be very difficult to distinguish between short stories, novellas and novelettes. As you can see from the examples, length is not everything. The essence of the narrative is what defines the form in many of these examples. The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett clearly defines what the story is about. At 96 pages long it falls somewhere between a novelette and a novella and yet a film was made based on the story. In a similar fashion, Daphne Du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now was also translated into film.
There are times when word count and length are of importance. The length may depend on the purpose of your work. If you’re writing for your own entertainment or building a short story collection you may have flexibility in the number of words. If your aim is publication, there could be restrictions or guidelines. For competitions, it is always best to adhere to the rules.
With any story, you need three ingredients: people, place, and purpose/plot. These parts make up the whole and examining them will help you to decide if your story is the right length, and whether it is a short story, or if it needs more scope by becoming a novella or novelette.
It all goes back to the basic question of ‘what sort of writer are you’? Some writers can’t conceive of writing anything under 2,000 words. Others write a perfect story in less than 200. Margaret Atwood and Roald Dahl excel in both forms. The latter is famous for his children’s books, but he was a master of the short story and wrote some very dark material.
The best way to decide is to read anthologies or collections of short stories which often contain novellas and novelettes. Contemporary writers such as Alice Munro, Neil Gamain, Helen Oyeyemi, Etgar Keret and Colin Barrett give a flavour of what is popular now. Some of the classics such as Guy du Maupassant and Ray Bradbury should also be included in your reading list.
So, how long is a short story, novella or novelette?
As long as it needs to be.
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