Words, They Mean Things: Novel vs. Novella vs. Short Story
Definitions, as we’ve seen, are slippery slopes. Genres are notoriously difficult to define. Where do you draw the line between horror and thriller? Where do you draw the line between sci-fi and fantasy? How can you? Genres often overlap and intersect. The lines get blurred very quickly. We need them to help us identify the kinds of things we want to read, but they can also be easily misapplied. We may not always agree with a categorization. Someone might label something “sci-fi,” but you, as a hardcore sci-fi fan, don’t see it as sci-fi at all, but more a sort of soft fantasy or a technological thriller.
Another point of confusion can be things like novels, novellas, and short stories. It might seem self-evident that a short story is short (but they can get quite long, actually). Novellas would be miniature novels, and novels are those great tomes like War and Peace or Gone with the Wind.
But the length of novels can vary wildly, and you never seem to know exactly how long or short a short story is going to be. And where does that novella fit in?
There are technical definitions for these things. Of course, there’s room for variation in all things; you’ll see that in the definitions provided.
What’s a Novel?
Let’s start with the big one: novel. Virtually everyone has used this category before. You’ve probably read novels. Maybe you read “junior novels” when you were in grade school. Maybe you’re an avid reader and you love reading full-fledged novels. The longer, the better!
Yet you’ve also seen the wide array of lengths every time you walk into a library or a bookstore. Some novels are very slim. Others are huge, fat things, seemingly thousands of pages long. They’re printed on very thin paper, much like a Bible or the collected works of Shakespeare. They’re even longer than they first appear because that paper is so thin.
What gives? Shouldn’t a novel be a particular length?
Well, yes and no!
A novel is sometimes defined as a work that is 50,000 words or longer. That’s the definition that NaNoWriMo uses for their novel-writing contests. Participants are encouraged to work up to that word count in order to “complete” their novels. If they fall short, then they technically have not written a “novel.”
It makes sense for NaNoWriMo to attempt some sort of word count definition. Why? Well, when running a contest like this, you need to define what counts as “complete.” What is the goal? Simply saying, “Write a novel in thirty days” doesn’t really help people achieve their goal. One person might write 50,000 words, another 85,000 words, and yet another, a mere 25,000 words. We need a definition to keep everyone on the same page (heh).
Other definitions suggest that anything over 40,000 words will qualify as a novel. And then there’s the idea of a “full-fledged” novel, which is often benchmarked around 85,000 words—nearly double the length of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words. Obviously, as much as there are benchmarks, there’s also some disagreement about what actually qualifies as a novel!
Why Word Counts?
A good question! Why use word counts as the arbitrary marker of what’s a novel and what’s not? Some definitions actually give page counts instead of word counts. A novel must exceed 100 typeset pages.
Using a page count is considerably less reliable than using a word count, however. Page design heavily influences the page extent of a book. I almost guarantee you two 350-page books are not the same word count, unless they have exactly the same page design. Even then, it’s unlikely they’re exactly the same length. That means one “novel” is shorter than another, even if there’s the same number of pages in the book.
Why so much variation? Page design varies wildly in terms of how many words are on a page. A book that manages to cram 500 words per page is going to fall right on the 100-pages mark if it’s 50,000 words. A design that allows for 300 words per page will have the same book clocking in around 160 pages.
Word counts are somewhat more reliable than page counts then. My book might be 100 or 160 pages at 50,000 words, depending on design decisions. There’s no escaping my 50,000 words is the same number of words as your 50,000 words, however. Word count is thus a more consistent benchmark for determining length.
What’s a Novella?
Fewer people have heard of or used the term novella, but it’s a category that sometimes gets used for books shorter than 50,000 words or less than 100 typeset pages, but longer than a short story (see below).
A novella is shorter than a novel. It’s technically anything under 100 pages, exceeding the length of a short story. By word count, then, a novella might be anything longer than a short story, but falling under the novel benchmark. In some cases, that benchmark may be 50,000 words; in others, it may be 40,000.
Since there’s confusion about what counts as a novel, there’s also a lot of confusion over what a novella truly is. Some people may call the same book a novel or a novella, depending on how they’re defining a novel or a short story.
Some people prefer to designate novels and novellas by the complexity of plot instead. That can lead to even more confusion, as books that are typically considered novels may also be considered novellas. Examples include many of H.G. Wells’s works.
What’s a Short Story?
All right, what about a short story? Well, that depends on if you want to include the odd category of “novelette,” which is technically shorter than a novella, but longer than a short story. Most places do not use novelette. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “novella” and “novelette” the same way, but suggests that “novelette” might be used in a pejorative or belittling way.
If you don’t include the novelette as a legitimate category on its own, a short story can run up to about 17,500 words before it turns into a novella. If you accept that a novelette is a valid category and it is distinct from the novella, then the cut-off for a short story might be a lot lower. Some would define a short story as anything under 7,500 words, with the novelette category occupying the range between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and the novella being 17,501 to 49,999 (or 39,999 words).
I’ve also seen short stories defined by page count, much like novels and novellas can be. In most cases, short stories are anything under 50 pages. A novella thus occupies the space between 51 and 99 pages, and novels are 100 pages or more.
All of This Is Arbitrary
So now we’ve seen the definitions of novel, novella, novelette, and short story. There’s one defining factor across all of these definitions: Nobody agrees what’s what. There’s a general consensus on what a novel is (and isn’t). Novellas and novelettes are sometimes overlapping, and depending on the definitions, can even overlap with short stories or novels themselves.
Then there’s the question of what benchmarks we should be using to categorize works. Should we use word counts, page counts, or something more substantive, such as the complexity of the story being told? Who judges what’s a complicated enough story for a “novel”? Does that just degraded “novellas” into being lighter fluff fare for non-serious readers? Are short stories and novellas already treated that way? Keep in mind, nobody wants to write the next great American novella—we’re all after the novel.
What to do then? The first thing any reader or writer should keep in mind is this is all arbitrary. Suggesting your book isn’t a novel because it’s 99 pages or 49,999 words is perhaps technically correct by some yardsticks, but it’s still just an arbitrary measuring stick. Is it a novel or a novella? Who knows? And, to a certain extent, who cares?
Why We Care
Obviously, there’s one good reason to care: marketing. I’ve mentioned before how readers can be reluctant to part with their hard-earned dollars. Short story collections are notoriously poor sellers for publishers. Virtually no one wants to publish a short story anthology, because they rarely sell well.
Why? It’s a judgment call by readers. I can pay $3.99 or $4.99 or what have you for 350 pages of multiple (short) stories by perhaps a variety of different authors, or I can pay the same amount for a (perhaps somewhat longer) book with one story pulled throughout, by one or two authors.
If I know I like Author 1’s writing, buying 350 pages of their writing is a better bet. Even if the anthology is all of Author 1’s work, as a reader, I’m still going to feel I got more for my dollar when I buy the novel vs. buying the short story collection.
There’s also a certain amount of artistic prestige associated with the novel. Short stories, and novellas to a lesser extent, get the short end of the stick when it comes to judgments about artistic merit. A novel, we reason, is a work of art. It’s high literature. A short story—well, it’s short! It must be fluff. Never mind some very great writers make the short story an art form.
We’ve been taught quantity equals quality, to a certain extent, and that influences our book-buying decisions. If you’re writing, publishing, or marketing a book, having a novel to sell, versus a novella or a short story, makes your job much easier!
At the end of the day, though, what should truly matter is quality.