You’re at a coffee shop or a party or a writer’s workshop, and someone asks you what you are writing – a short story or a novel? You pause for a moment, wondering if what you’re really writing is a novella. So what is it?
There’s no hard or fast rule about what is a short story, what is a novella and what is a novel. It’s largely a subjective matter for which editors and publishers assign arbitrary numbers based on their needs and available space. To avoid confusion, this site follows the word counts used in the Hugo and Nebula contests:
• Short story - 7,500 words or less
• Novelette - 7,501-17,500 words (many editors simply lump this category into either the short story or the novella groupings)
• Novella - 17,501-40,000 words
• Novel - 40,001 or more words
Some stories are better told in one category rather than another. So when deciding how long your story will be, think about the advantages and disadvantages of each category and which one best serves your tale.
Short stories and novelettes
• Easier for author to maintain consistency of purpose as there are fewer characters and settings, so better dramatic and thematic unity
• Practical for authors; you can complete it more quickly, often in days or weeks
• Good place for new writers to start to build their reputation and garner a novel deal
• Limited platform as short stories may offer too narrow of a framework for the author to tell his sweeping story
• Don’t make much money
Novellas and novels
As you probably can guess, the advantages and disadvantages of the novel are essentially opposite of those for the short story.
• Larger scale for developing ideas and characters
• Can introduce characters and settings at a more leisurely rate than a short story
• Plots can be far more intricate than short stories
• Make more money and build broader reputation
• Can be too large of a platform for new writers to handle
• Too broad of a framework for the author to tell a more narrow in scope story
Clearly, there’s far more to consider than word count when selecting which story format you’ll use. As science fiction author and editor Jack Williamson once noted, “Jim Gunn said a long time ago that the novelette is the best length for science fiction because it has space to develop the characters and the idea and pose the question but doesn’t have to answer the question. A novel should.”
In short, you must let the story dictate its length.
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