Have you ever been captivated by a story that transports you to another world, only to find that it loses its emotional potency because it drags on for way too long? At a time when people’s attention spans are shorter than ever, and we wish for quicker, more condensed experiences, short fiction has become a well-liked and successful storytelling format. It is a potent tool for authors to convey a big emotional punch, because it can pack complex ideas and emotions in just a few pages.
In this guide, we will explore the differences between novellas, novelettes, short stories, and flash fiction, and provide advice on how to choose the right form for your story.
What Is a Novella?
A novella is a work of fiction that typically spans from 20,000 to 40,000 words. They are generally considered to be a lot longer than short stories, a bit longer than novelettes, but shorter than novels. Different publishers may define the length range slightly differently. In standard-size books, 20,000 words take up around 70 pages in length, and a 40,000-word novella would be around 140 pages.
Novellas have more elaborate plots and character development than short stories and novelettes, but are still more focused and streamlined than novels.
They often explore a single theme or idea in depth because they are long enough to include a substantial amount of detail. Their decent length also allows for enough space for multiple story arcs, the odd subplot, and good character development. They can explore just about any genre or theme.
But because there are space limitations, they tend to include at most two conflicts and the tales are told from the perspective of only one or two story participants. Their characters cannot be endlessly distracted by a subplot, the world cannot be described in much detail, and there cannot be scenes that don’t contribute directly to the central plot.
As such, a novella is a shorter and more focused novel. You may want to tell your story in this form if you need to explore a single theme or idea in greater depth than a short story would allow you to, but without the complexity of a novel. This format can also be used as a platform for experimentation with different literary techniques and styles than the ones to which you are accustomed.
Examples of Novellas
A novella is not simply a short fiction form written by authors who don’t feel like writing a full-length novel. Many of the most famous writers have produced novellas, including Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Stephen King. Let’s look at some examples to show off this unique storytelling form.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
At around 30,000 words, Orwell’s novella is an in-depth exploration of the dangers of totalitarianism. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their authoritarian human farmer and take control of the farm themselves.
Initially, they live in a society founded on the principles of equality and democracy, but over time, a small group of pigs seize power and begin to oppress the other animals. The pigs use propaganda and force to control and manipulate the other animals to maintain their own power.
The novella is a commentary on the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism, and it explores themes such as the corrupting influence of power and the importance of maintaining vigilance and critical thinking in the face of propaganda.
Accordingly, the themes are deep and the characters are relatively complex, but the story it tells is directly focused on these themes without any side tangents and even subplots, perfect for a novella.
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
The Ballad of Black Tom is a fantasy horror story published in 2016 that won numerous literary awards specifically for novellas. It recounts the story of Charles Thomas Tester, a young African American hustler in 1920s Harlem who becomes involved in the world of magic and occultism when he is hired to play music for a wealthy white man.
As Tester delves deeper into this dangerous and dark world, he discovers that he is a pawn in a larger supernatural conflict, and must fight to save himself and those he loves from the forces of evil.
It is a thorough exploration of race and class, but incorporated in a story centered around one conflict and one character.
What Is a Novelette?
A novelette is a form of fiction that is normally between 7,500 and 19,000 words long, longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. This means they are between 25 and 63 pages long, if calculated at the common 300 words per page. While the shorter ones may have to be published in collections of short stories and novelettes, the longer ones can comfortably appear as standalone books.
They are more concentrated and streamlined than novellas, but feature a more complete plot and better character development than short stories.
One important difference between a novelette and a short story is that the former is more complete than the latter. Short stories usually omit an exposition at the beginning or even an ending, leaving it up to readers to fill them in their imaginations. But a novelette always should have a proper ending that concludes a full narrative.
Like other types of fiction, they tend to explore themes like loss or identity, but in a shorter form than a novella. You will find them in just about any genre. Since limited space is available, the story is usually told from one perspective (sometimes two), there is only one central conflict, and the action often occurs in one specific location.
A novelette is an attractive option for a narrative that is brief. Many authors want to tell stories that are complete, but understandably find that they cannot do this in less than 7,500 words.They also allow for a bit more character depth, accompanied by stronger reader engagement thanks to the character’s journey and the flow of the story. These are characteristics that are absent from short stories and may discourage readers from taking interest in them as a result.
The truth of the matter is, however, that a novelette barely exists as a separate concept in the 21st century, as almost all writers and publishers simply use the term novella for the longer formats of short fiction and short story for the shorter ones. The Horror Writers Association, for example, categorizes novelettes with novellas when handing out the Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction, and you will see in the examples below that the confusion already existed more than 100 years ago.
Examples of Novelettes
Confirming the confusion described above, most novelettes are either marketed as novellas or short stories, but their tighter focus can separate them from novellas and their completeness from short stories. Let’s look at some examples.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
At just below 17,000 words, this Louis Stevenson classic is strictly-speaking a novelette, although it has always been marketed as a novella, probably because it seems so beautifully complete. The story describes the investigation of a London lawyer of the strange relationship between his friend, Dr. Jekyll, and a mysterious and violent man named Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll is a respected and successful physician who has been experimenting with chemical compounds in an attempt to separate the good and evil within himself. However, his experiments result in the creation of Mr. Hyde, a dark and malevolent alter ego who indulges in violence and crime.
The novelette is a meditation on the good-evil duality of human nature and the limits of scientific progress, tightly woven into an impressively compact story.
Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler
Bloodchild is a science fiction novelette that explores the relationship between humans and an alien species called the Tlic. The story takes place on a distant planet where humans have been taken as hosts and used as incubators for Tlic eggs.
The main character, Gan, is a young human male who has been chosen by a Tlic, T’Gatoi, to carry her eggs. As Gan becomes more involved with the Tlic society, he begins to question the nature of their relationship and the sacrifices he must make to preserve it.
It is a full story with an ending, as Gan agrees to be impregnated on condition that he is allowed to keep a gun for a potential suicide while T’Gatoi simultaneously expresses her loving commitment to take care of him. It is also substantially more focused on that one central issue of parasitic impregnation than a novella would’ve been.
What Is a Short Story?
A short story is a work of fiction that typically ranges from 1,000 to 7,500 words in length, or between 3 and 25 pages long, although the exact length can vary depending on the source. Almost all short story competitions require submissions inside this range. It is not too controversial, however, to call an 8000-word work a short story if it lacks the type of completeness that is usually found in novelettes, so long as you are not submitting it for a competition with a lower word target.
They have a simple narrative structure, focusing on a single character or event and exploring a single theme.
Due to their brevity, they require a concise and focused storytelling, often relying on suggestion and implication rather than extensive exposition. As a result, short stories can be more symbolic than other forms of fiction. This also means that they are usually not as complete as novelettes, missing either the beginning or the end.
There is limited room for character development, as the focus is often on the plot and theme rather than on complex character arcs. Given their length, they are more focused than even a novelette, with every word contributing to the overall message.
Examples of Short Stories
Short stories can be found in a variety of genres and styles, and offer a powerful and efficient way to explore the human experience. Below are two examples of well-known short stories.
“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
“Harrison Bergeron” is a dystopian short story by Kurt Vonnegut that takes place in a future society where people with above-average intelligence, strength, and beauty are handicapped with devices that make them equal to everyone else.
The story follows a boy who is unusually intelligent and strong, as he rebels against the oppressive government and attempts to assert his individuality and talents. He is eventually killed live on television for making good music and dancing well, but his parents hardly notice because they’re too busy with their lives in which everything is mediocre.
Ultimately, the story is a powerful commentary on the dangers of enforced equality and the importance of individual freedom and creativity. But since it offers little in terms of exposition, completeness, and character depth, it is a typical short story of just under 2,200 words.
“Autopsy Room Four” by Stephen King
At 8,000 words, “Autopsy Room Four” is a tad too long for the normal short story, but it cannot really qualify as a novelette either because it is hardly a story at all. It involves one character’s experiences in one setting and very little else.
This little horror tale follows the protagonist as he wakes up paralyzed after a snake bite and unable to move, realizing that he is lying on an autopsy table in a morgue. He has been mistakenly pronounced dead and is about to be cut open and dissected alive.
We feel his panic and watch his attempts to make the tiniest movements or sounds, from the first word to the humorous end where a female pathologist holds his erect member in her hand while scanning his thighs for scars.
What Is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is a very short form of fiction that typically ranges from 100 to 1,000 words in length, sometimes referred to as microfiction. The exact length may vary depending on the definition, with some people drawing the boundary between a flash fiction and a short story at 1500 words. This means that it definitely should not be longer than five pages, and is typically between one-third of a page and around three-and-a-half pages.
It focuses on a single event happening to a single character, rather than on a series of events or proper storyline.
Due to their compact length, flash fiction relies on implication and suggestion rather than explicit detail, and requires writers to be very selective with their word choice. Like in the case of short stories, every single word should contribute to the story, just more so. For this reason, writers take advantage of strong verbs in short stories and flash fiction.
Flash fiction is a good choice if you have one specific event that you want to explore, rather than telling a story.
Examples of Flash Fiction
Many great ideas have been explained in the form of flash fiction that would otherwise have been lost in scholarly essays read by a lot fewer people. Let’s investigate two examples.
“The Egg” by Andy Weir
At 997 words, “The Egg” describes a character’s meeting with God after he dies, in which God informs him that he has lived many past lives and will live many more.
God explains to him that he is not just one individual, but rather an infinite number of people across time, including Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Adolf Hitler, and every victim of the Holocaust. Hence, every action he takes towards others is ultimately an action towards himself. Whether an act of kindness or victimization, it is done to himself.
This conversation is the totality of the little story and, even though it lacks a proper storyline, it is a powerful idea that packs a heavy punch.
“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
“The Last Question” is even shorter. It centers around Multivac, a self-adjusting and self-correcting computer that had been fed data for decades, allowing humans to expand their reach beyond Earth. The story is broken up into different eras of human development, each time featuring someone asking Multivac how to reverse the destructive effects of entropy on the universe.
Multivac’s responses become increasingly sophisticated but still useless. In the last scene, humanity merges with Multivac’s ultimate descendant, AC, who finally discovers the answer to the question but has no one to report it to since the universe is already dead. AC decides to answer by demonstrating its discovery, saying, “Let there be light!”
This little story stretches beyond one event, as it is a series of scenes in which approximately the same thing happens, until the last scene that is different and profoundly meaningful.
Differences in Short Fiction
The primary difference between novellas, novelettes, short stories, and flash fiction lies in their length and the depth of the story and characters.
Novellas typically range from 20,000 to 40,000 words and have a more complex plot and deeper character development than the other three, and may even include a subplot. Longer than novelettes and short stories but shorter than novels, they allow authors to explore a single theme or idea in-depth.
Novelettes are shorter than novellas, usually ranging from 7,500 to 19,000 words, often focus on a single character or event, and lack subplots. They allow for more character development and exploration of themes than short stories, but less than novellas. Unlike short stories, they are also complete, including a bit of description of setting and an ending.
Short stories typically range from 1,000 to 7,500 words, focus on a single event or character, lack much exposition, often lack endings, and their characters tend to be quite shallow.
Flash fiction is the shortest form of fiction, typically ranging from 100 to 1,000 words. It is extremely concise with every word counting towards the story. These stories focus on a single event or character and can be closer to messages than to fully developed stories.
Here is an overview that captures the key similarities and differences:
Novel vs. Novella
Novels are longer than 40,000 words, usually from 60,000 words onwards. Novellas are normally between 20,000 and 40,000 words. This difference in length allows a novel to have a more extensive and complex plot, more characters, more conflicts, and more intricate subplots, while a novella can focus on a single theme or idea in-depth.
Due to the shorter length, novellas may have a more focused and impactful story, while novels can have more detailed character development and explore several themes throughout the course of its plot and subplots.
Novella vs. Novelette
Overall, the difference between a novella and a novelette lies in their length and narrative focus, with novellas being longer and more complex, and novelettes being shorter and more focused.
Novellas typically range from 20,000 to 40,000 words, while novelettes are shorter, usually ranging from 7,500 to 19,000 words. This difference in length allows novellas to have more intricate plots (occasionally, even one or two subplots) and more developed characters, while novelettes tend to have only moderately developed characters and plots that are focused more narrowly on one issue, event, or character.
Novelette vs. Short Story
The two greatest differences between a novelette and a short story are length and completeness of story.
Novelettes usually range from 7,500 to 19,000 words, while short stories are shorter at 1,000-7,500 words. This means that short stories are more concise, condensed and narrowly focused on one small idea or event, while a novelette has room for a little bit of description, character development, and a slightly more sophisticated conflict.
Finally, novelettes are complete stories that include a bit of initial exposition and a conclusion, while short stories are often a snapshot of an event or a particular lesson out of someone’s life that lack an exposition and conclusion, usually leaving it up to the reader to decide the implications of the development of the events of the story on its characters.
Short Story vs. Flash Fiction
Short stories and flash fiction are the most similar forms of short fiction, in the sense that they are both incomplete stories with simple plots. They both include no descriptions of setting and lack character development.
The most important difference is length, with a short story being 1,000 – 7,500 and flash fiction being 100 – 1,000 words long. This allows the former to be centered on a slightly more elaborate conflict than the latter, which tends to focus on a single event that contains a tiny conflict.
For authors, writing short fiction can provide a range of benefits, including the development of writing skills, faster turnaround times, the opportunity to experiment with different genres and styles, exposure to new readers, and portfolio building. Whether you’re an experienced writer looking to expand your skill set or a newcomer to the world of writing, short fiction offers a wealth of possibilities for exploration and creativity.
So why not give it a try? Whether you choose to write a novella, a novelette, a short story, or a piece of flash fiction, the rewards of these rich and dynamic literary forms are waiting to be discovered.