Novel ou Novella?

The Night of One Hundred Thieves first draft? Check! Determine if it is a novella or a novel? Plllt.

First things first. What the heck is a novella?

ETHAN FROMEIs it Italian? Does it have a moral or a “satirical bent?” Is it produced in parts? The answer to all of these internet jabs at the definition of the novella is, sadly, no (at least, not anymore). But the posturing highlights an issue: very few people seem to know or be able to articulate just what the difference between a novel and a novella is. I can tell you what these people can do: tell you, with their noses in the air, that it is not a length thing. Or, with their noses to the grindstone, it is a length thing. Oh my!

We haven’t gotten anywhere, have we?

Here are some of our options.

CORALINEFirst, that the differences in the forms is, firstly, a matter of length. Obviously, no matter how snooty you are, this has to be at least somewhat of an indicator, as no 3000 page character study or 3 page completely plotted piece would be called anything but a novel (or poor choices) and a short story, respectively. I don’t care how Italian or satirical a piece gets, if its too long, it is no longer a novella. Capice? Here are the sometimes arbitrary standards I found:

  • Hint Fiction: less than 25 words (Six-Word Fiction, 6 words)
  • Flash Fiction: 25-1000 words (Dribble Fiction, exactly 50 words; 55 Fiction, less than 55 words; 69ers, exactly 69 words with title; Drabble Fiction, exactly 100 words; Micro Fiction, 500 or less; Twitter Fiction, 140 characters max)
  • Sudden Fiction: Over 1000 words
  • Short Story: less than 7,500 words
  • Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words
  • Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words or more, “book length”
  • Epic: somewhere over 100,000, usually

Second, that the difference in forms is something ultimately more fluid, more subtle. The main issues with this wonderfully snobbish definition is that no standardized definition seems to exist, for this categorization. Examples? Not even, really, as most clearly accepted novellas are things we have never read (unless you are defining them by length, which won’t work for us at this moment).

Let’s assume that all of these begin with the requirement that they are fictional writing forms. This is the best I could come up with:

  • THE BODYHint Fiction: Less is more, with a lot of the writer in the story. Neat and to the point. Suggest a larger, more complex story.
  • Flash (Micro, Sudden, Postcard, Short Short, Very Short, Nano, Minute, Furious, Fast, Skinny) Fiction: Extreme brevity. Condenses a story into the fewest words possible. Emphasizes plot with a twist at the end, and has a beginning, center, and end. Hard, clean, core of the story. A complete story where every word is absolutely essential.
  • Sudden Fiction: Any short short fiction falls under the definition here of Flash Fiction. Distinctions vary widely and are based almost solely on word count.
  • Short Story: Fully developed theme, but less elaborate than a novel. Few characters. Unity of effect. Concentrates on creation of mood rather than plot. A self-contained event focusing on a single effect.
  • Novelette: Can be light, slight, romantic, trivial, or sentimental.
  • Novella: Complicated, but low on conflicts. Allows time for character and plot development, but meant more for a shorter read, possibly in one sitting. Can end on the brink of change. Many do not have chapter division. Compact and pointed plot. Often realistic or satirical. Room for subplots and development of a few characters. Can be moral or educational. Usually rotates around a single character. Can be combined to create a series, like novels.
  • Novel: Fictitious, prose narrative with elements of realism. “Room for multiple subplots and development of more characters. multiple major characters, sub-plots, conflicts and twists…. Plot moves forward by different actions, thoughts, results, situations that are evoked by different characters involved in it. It has several twists in the main story, and the reader often feels that the main story has been deviated and affected by the involvement of different sub-stories and sub-plots, or by the involvement of new important characters” (
  • Epic: Long composition, which centers around a single character who undergoes great achievements, or is told in an elevated style. Often includes multiple books in a series. Themes of grandeur and heroism. Action depends on the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race.

TURN OF THE SCREWOf course, a big problem with the defining of the literary forms is that a majority of the defining is relative. For example, I found an abundance of definitions, like these: “Shorter than a novel,” “A brief novel or long short story,” “About a third in length of a novel.” A novella, especially, is often defined in terms of a novel and a short story, but all three are left quite ambiguous in concept.

There there is the more general idea that each longer form needs to justify itself in terms of length. I like that rule, but it still doesn’t tell me if a crappy novel is a crappy novel or a crappy novella. Plus it would be fluid to the point that it lacks distinction. Even so, writers should keep this in mind when choosing how to edit (and write) their literature.

In reality, writers have to turn to contest and publisher requirements for their definitions, which are almost always determined by length, and can vary. Which leaves us with the reader, who needs our categorization when a writer or publisher markets their book. It used to be that they could hold the book in their hands, observe the size, the weight, and even flip through and check out the font size, margins, spacing. But with the rise of the ebook and online book sales rocketing, I really appreciate the online dude who pointed out that part of our service as modern writers for print and online material should be to give an idea to our readers of the book’s length, since they often can’t hold it in their hands (even when purchasing physical books online). I also sympathize with him that the only real way to standardize this is to list the word count. Word count varies less than anything else, by far (including page count), and is more clear than the mud puddle that is our defining of the writers’ forms. However, it will take time and a fair amount of consistency for readers to pick up on the meaning of word counts.

Which leads us to it. What books are often called novellas, which we might be able to relate to?:

  • THE LITTLE PRINCECandide, Voltaire
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
  • Three Blind Mice, Agatha Cristie
  • Billy Budd, Herman Melville
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stephenson
  • The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
  • Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
  • Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
  • The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  • The Metamorphoses, Franz Kafka
  • The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  • A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell
  • The Body, Stephen King
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman
  • The Dead, James Joyce
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  • Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
  • The Pearl, John Steinbeck
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus
  • The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
  • I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  • The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells

I’m pretty sure a very large number of these books are called novellas because of their length, and also are not commonly called novellas at all, but novels. I’m dizzy.

I have written a book. It is 48,300 words, which by the length requirements above is tightly a novel, loosely between a novel and novella, and by some definitions of length still a novella (up to 50,000 words). It has 40 characters, obviously some more developed than others, and a complicated, single plot. It is light fantasy. It has a conclusion, but not all loose ends are tied, and leaves off at a pivotal point in a larger legend. It has longer section divisions, as opposed to chapters. While the “plot moves forward by different actions, thoughts, results, situations that are evoked by different characters involved in it,” each development is quick and every setting description and character’s facial expression is integral to plot and character development. It could be read in one sitting, depending of course on the reader.

In terms of exploring the forms and discussing their definition, I think we’ve made some headway here. In terms of uncovering the real, hard and fast definitions, we have gotten almost nowhere. I have not even answered my original question, whether The Night of One Hundred Thieves is a novel or novella. I mean, what am I going to call it when I market it this summer? Which leads to my most pragmatic of explanations: the definitions given here, by length and by more ambiguous terms, are only helpful as guidelines (and hard fact only when dictated for a submission). Readers seem to have increasing interest in the shorter forms, but as of yet, most readers will think novell-what? Which means, decision of what to call a 48,000 word book is going to based largely on marketing strategy and I, for one, am going to start listing word count online.

As to whether it is a novella or novel? Both. Or neither. Or… oh, well.

NOTE: Now that you’ve read that whole thing, I think I should point out that this does not apply to Middle Grades, YA, and children’s books/novels. Well, actually, YA could probably work here, but Middle Grades and children’s “novels” are generally much shorter (the younger you go) and we don’t need to be calling any short books in those categories “novellas.” Genres, too, have their own norms (like fantasy tending loooong), but technically these rules would apply there for categorization.


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