All of us are familiar with the concept of a novel, a story of length that describes fictional characters and events. Examples include Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Fight Club (yes, it was a novel first), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Lovely Bones, and Gone Girl.
But what is a novella? Is it just a fancy name for a short novel? Is the main difference just in the length and number of pages? What are the differences between a novel and a novella? How do you tailor your work to either? Read on to find out …
Novel: A definition
A novel is a long, narrative work of fiction describing a series of interconnected scenes or events that bring together characters, themes or experiences. Prose, style and length are some of its defining characteristics, and it is usually more than 200 pages and over 40,000 words—the longest genre of fiction in modern literature. Given their length, novels have room for more complicated plots, even subplots, and a variety of colourful characters that can change or develop throughout the story. There is also time to explore and unpack the themes presented, and there often are many themes.
Novels can feature different genres such as fantasy, romance, science fiction, thriller, adventure, supernatural, etc. And the work itself is often divided into scenes, chapters and even volumes like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which was originally three volumes.
Novella: A definition
A novella is also a form of fictional narrative, but it differs in length. It is shorter than a novel but longer than a short story, and often comes in at about 200 pages and 20,000 to 40,000 words, so unlike a novel, it can be read in one sitting. However, novellas also contain far fewer characters, themes and conflicts, so it is often far less complex and more focused. It may focus on a single event or crisis, and end with that event. The timeline of the story may also be far shorter, and it may not feature chapters. So, rather than just considering it as a shorter novel, it is indeed an entirely different literary genre altogether.
And there are some very famous novellas that you may have heard from. Some include Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As this the novella is a literary form less understood, let’s take a quick look at one. The Little Prince is the story of a young prince who visits various planets and talks about loneliness, friendship, love and loss. While it seems to be written for children, it is essentially encouraging adults to stay childlike and is full of symbolism. Readers might spend some time pondering its meaning, but the actual read is pretty quick—ReadingLength.com says the average reader takes 96 minutes to read it. A Christmas Carol takes just 64 minutes.
Canadian writer Warren Cariou said, “The novella is generally not as formally experimental as the long story and the novel can be, and it usually lacks the subplots, the multiple points of view, and the generic adaptability that are common in the novel. It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.”
This would seem a fairly apt description for The Little Prince.
Main differences between novels and novellas
Both novel and novella borrow from an Italian word meaning “any of a number of tales or stories making up a larger work; a short narrative of this type, a fable”. While length is a key difference, the key points of divergence are in their narrative structure. Let’s expand on the differences here.
A novella is shorter both in page number and word count. It is longer than a short story but far shorter than a novel. It can even be read in a single sitting, whereas a novel could take days, or weeks. Novels have time to describe events, characters, plots and themes, given their length. Novellas don’t, so let’s look at some of those elements next.
Given their shortness, novellas usually move at a quicker pace than a novel. There is much to get through in a shorter time, after all. There is no need to unpack backstory or explore multiple points of view in a novella. They tend to be quick, compelling stories and usually provide a singular point of view (meaning one protagonist and limited characters or characterisation).
Most novellas have a single, central conflict that is far less complex than in a novel. There are no subplots to explore, so the story can be more focused and concentrate on a central theme. If there is any divergence, it’s limited. The number of characters is usually limited in a novella, so any character development focuses on the protagonist. For example, in A Christmas Carol, the story is about Scrooge being transformed into a kinder, gentler man after seeing the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
4. Time and place
Novels often cover vast tracks of time and may even have scenes or chapters that take place in multiple locations. Action in novellas is often far more limited and usually takes place in one continuous time period and one location. A Christmas Carol moves around a bit as each ghost presents a different time in Scrooge’s life, but it stays focused on him throughout.
Similarities between novels and novellas
We’ve talked a lot about novels vs. novellas, but what about some of their similarities? Here are five key similarities:
– Novels and novellas are both forms of fiction.
– Novels and novellas both feature a plot of varying complexity.
– Both a novel and novella contain at least one main character or event that should entice, engage and motivate the reader to keep reading.
– The word novel and novella both are based on a word of Italian origins that highlights its storytelling component.
– Novels and novellas both should follow standard grammar, punctuation and spelling rules.