Here’s the thing about novellas…

Those of you who’ve known me for a while have heard this rant before–Novellas, they’re not what you think they are. They’re not–I repeat, not–about word count. Novella means new* in Italian, not, as many think, little novel. Suggesting a novella is a short work of fiction between 20K and 40K words is like saying a sonnet is simply a poem composed of fourteen lines. As Canadian author, George Fetherling said, (in his essay, Briefly, the case for the novella) to reduce the novella to nothing more than a short novel is like saying “a pony is a baby horse.” See? It’s not just me.

Why do I get such a stick up my ass over this? Because this isn’t a grammar rule in flux, we’re losing an art form, a beautiful art form, and that just hits me in the writerly gut. The world of literary fiction knows and holds the difference when it comes to categories and prizes, but the genres and the general populace don’t, and that’s the danger–because a lie believed by the masses becomes the truth.

Very briefly, it is structure that defines a novella, not word count. There are no designated chapters in a novella, rather they are presented as a whole divided by white space to designate a significant shift. (Though, to be fair, I have seen novellas utilizing chapters.) Plotwise, it ends quite close to where it begins. In fact, little can and usually does change if at all. The form concerns itself more with the character development, the evolution (or devolution) of that character, than it does on plot conflict. The internal vs. the external. Novellas tend to begin close to the precipitating incident, but skip back and forth in time, filling in background. They usually end on the moment of climax, on the brink of change.

I recently came across this diagram that shows the structure in a visual way:structurenovella

See how it climbs, then how quickly it falls? The reversal (something that happens to change the action’s direction) in the rising action is intrinsic to the structure. I thought that was pretty cool. So I’ll end this here, having gotten it off my chest, and will leave you with a few examples of actual novellas you’ll have heard of:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s ~ Truman Capote

A Christmas Carol ~ Charles Dickens

My Mortal Enemy ~ Willa Cather

Animal Farm ~ George Orwell

Ethan Frome ~ Edith Wharton

The Old Man and the Sea ~ Ernest Hemmingway

Shawshank Redemption ~ Stephen King

The Stepford Wives ~ Ira Levin

The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde


*I’ve recently seen it as “little novelty,” but that’s no more right than “little novel” is.


Filed under Writing is Life

21 responses to “Here’s the thing about novellas…

  1. MaryAnn Forbes

    I appreciate the post as I always thought novella was just basically another term for short story. I will certainly look at them with a more discerning eye in the future.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Very few outside of a college lit class know the difference. I only know because my daughter was a creative writing major.


  2. Elizabeth

    Stand By Me by Stephen King also!


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Yup! But I already gave him Shawshank so… I was disheartened by the low percentage of female authors, and that the few on the list I could find were not well known.


  3. Just to play devil’s advocate–and make you a little insane–Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary has a “simple” definition for the word novella as “a short novel : a story that is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.” So by that definition a shorter novel fits. Isn’t is possible the word has changed meaning over time, like many words of long ago have taken on a modern day use that could mean something different?
    (I’d attach the on-line link, but wordpress will think I’m spamming you.)


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      I know the reference. And that’s really my point. It IS being defined that way, and we are losing an art form as a result. Novella shouldn’t be appropriated when it means the demise of what it actually is, not when there are perfectly good terms that apparently don’t sound literary enough. You bad woman, you. :-p


      • But are we losing it? People who choose to write in the art form you describe will. Times change. Language changes with it. But I know this is one of those things that bug you 🙂 Truth is, the average person doesn’t know the difference. Those who study language or literature might. The writing of novella’s in the true sense still goes on in the literary world for those who choose. I’ll bet it isn’t about genre fiction trying to make shorter books sound ‘literary’ h as much as the idea the word novella test marketed better with readers lol!


      • Terri-Lynne DeFino

        (I love this, btw, so never shy away from the discussion for fear you’re going to tweak my nose.)
        You actually make my point for me–the average person doesn’t know the difference. I’ll go back to my old standby, what if the populace decided to call all short poems haiku? What if it became so prevalent that any three-line (give or take) poem with seventeen (give or take) syllables was now considered haiku? There is a structure to it, and a tradition, and without the 5-7-5, it’s not haiku. And I think you’re right–novella probably tested better with readers, and that’s exactly my point of it sounding “prettier” than novelette with all the diminutive connotations it ascribes.

        I’m all for evolution of language, literature, everything. Things that don’t evolve stagnate and go extinct. Except for crocodiles 🙂 But, like dogs, novella is being evolved outside of what it is, manipulated by impatient humans and getting weaker instead of stronger. The beautiful structure is being lost. It shouldn’t only exist in the “literary” world. I love the new and exciting world of fiction that’s longer than a short story, shorter than a novel. I’ve yet to master it, being apparently too long-winded. But by appropriating the one commonality–word count–and redefining the form is not only unfair to the poor novella, but a missed opportunity to create a NEW form in and of itself.


  4. I was unaware of this – musn’t have been in the right lit class in college, lol. But I think there is no unringing this particular bell. I also think the word was lost a long time ago. I read The Old Man and The Sea and Animal Farm in high school and they were referred to as plain old novels. I never would have thought of them as novellas, even before the current onslaught of 20k-40k works on the market today. I’m not sure I ever heard the word novella before its contemporary usage. Also, I don’t think the art form itself will be lost. Authors who want to pen such stories will do just that. What they will wind up being called is anyone’s guess…..


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      The literary (for want of a better word) world still recognizes and uses novella. There are still category prizes that are strict about it. That the term has been appropriated and its meaning changed elsewhere doesn’t make it anything other than what it is. What’s happening is that this misappropriation is making the actual form obscure and culturally obsolete. THAT is the shame. To lose it for no reason other than that novella sounds prettier than novelette.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Terri-Lynne DeFino

    Oy. Autocorrect. Cry rally? I’m not even sure what I’d been trying to write there. (You know I had to go in and edit that.)


  6. I’ve never so disagreed with anything in all my life.

    A novella is simply a work of fiction that’s too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. Anything that fits that definition is a novella regardless of its structure.

    You complain about people reducing the novella to ‘nothing more than a short novel” and then you go and reduce it to a diagram. How silly is that?

    I’m trying to think of a nice way of saying you don’t know what you’re talking about, but I can’t, so I won’t.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Well, you may disagree all you like, but a novella is not simply a work of fiction too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel. That’s the simplest, and most misleading, part of its criteria. The form results in a shorter word count BECAUSE of its structure, not simply working within the parameters of 20-40K. I didn’t make any of the facts I stated up. It’s not my opinion. I’d cite research for you but you’ll doubtless find it tainted. Do your own and see what you find. That the designation has been appropriated in recent years with the rise in popularity of shorter than/longer than fiction doesn’t change the fact that novella is more than a word count. You may not like that, but it’s nevertheless true.

      I’m also aware that I’m fighting a sadly losing battle. Novella has been appropriated, and it will come (and has come) to mean exactly what you say it does. And that, to me, is a shame. It’s not taking anything away from longer than/shorter than fiction to call it novelette, but it is taking away novella’s form by making it all about word count.

      Now, Patrick, you were rude. I didn’t do a “silly” thing like “reduce” the novella to a diagram. I illustrated the explanation I gave, visually, for those who find that easier to comprehend. I found it helpful when learning the structure myself. And trying to find a nice way of saying I don’t know what I’m talking about, failing and telling me so actually does tell me what you were supposedly trying not to say. I’d imagine you thought that looked more polite. This is me giving you the benefit of the doubt I really don’t have. That you felt the need to be insulting says more about you than it does me. I always welcome debate, especially when it comes to words, language, writing. I’ve had my mind changed, and changed others’ minds. I always learn something. You can disagree all you like, show me all the reasons why I’m wrong, but don’t be insulting.


      • “A novella is not simply a work of fiction too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel.”
        Yes it is. Any work of fiction too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel is a novella. Perhaps you have another name for it?

        “That’s the simplest, and most misleading, part of its criteria.”
        It’s its one and only criterion. That’s all it has to be to qualify as a novella. How is that mi9sleading?

        “The form results in a shorter word count BECAUSE of its structure, not simply working within the parameters of 20-40K.”
        Totally untrue. A writer restricted to a certain number of words will structure his (or her) story to fit that limitation. Some may do it the other way round, but it’s not obligatory. The structure you have dictatorially lay down in your diagram could be used to write a 5 million word novel or even a 5,000 word short story. Sticking to it does not necessarily make any work of fiction a novella.

        “I didn’t make any of the facts I stated up.”
        For the most part, they’re not facts. They’re misinformed opinions stated as facts.

        “It’s not my opinion.”
        No. It’s other people’s opinion that you’ve parroted.

        “I didn’t do a “silly” thing like “reduce” the novella to a diagram.”
        Yep. You did. It’s there in black and white. A diagram. As clear as day. That’s what you reduced the novella to. What an insult to Thomas Mann, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, Truman Capote…

        I’m sorry if I came across as being rude – and sorry that I’m probably still doing that – but I don’t think pointing out somebody’s idiocy is generally a bad thing.

        A novella can be a beautiful thing – like a song bird. But when it’s stuffed into a gilded cage…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Terri-Lynne DeFino

        Patrick, I tried to have an intelligent conversation with you. As that’s not happening, I’m done.


  7. You say: “They usually end on the moment of climax, on the brink of change.” Then you post a diagram that shows the exact opposite. Your ideas don’t seem clear in your mind.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      The diagram isn’t mine, but from a college text. And it does read exactly as that, the climax falls quickly to the end rather than on an incline. Also, note the word “usually.” I find a couple of people getting hung up on details they seem to be largely against. Rules aren’t unbendable. My dispute with the current use of the word novella is strictly the fact that it’s been whittled down to a word count. Not sure why there is a problem with this.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Carol Lovekin

    This. Word. Yup.
    As for your ‘other’ responder…
    Pa mor anghwrtais iawn

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: A Thousand Different Ways | Modesty Is For Suckers

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