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:
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.