Novels vs. Short Stories

Yesterday, Troy Chambers asked:

“What’s the “rule” on having something be considered a novel as opposed to a novella or short novel? What’s the word count?”

Well, these are the official word counts that are recognized by writer’s organizations to define stories, novels, and novellas:

Flash fiction: 0-500 words
Short shorts: 500-1,000 words
Short Stories: 1,000-7,500 words
Novelettes: 7,500-17,500 words
Novellas: 17,500-40,000 words
Novels: 40,000 words and up

(though most mainstream publishers won’t publish novels under 75,000 words, so some people consider novels to be 75,000 words and up)

However, I think most of these terms with word count definitions are bullshit. There are only novels and stories. These two are separated not by word count but plot content. If it has enough plot to be turned into a movie (or a three act play) without needing to add anything then it is a novel. Otherwise, it’s a story. The reason defining a novel/novella/story by word count doesn’t work is because there are works that have enough plot to be considered a novel, but are written in a minimalistic style that keeps the word count low (example: Animal Farm). And I have read works that have such little plot that they must be considered short stories, but are so overwritten that they have really high word counts (example: Stephen King stories). So you can have a 20,000 word novel as well as a 20,000 word short story. I would call a 20,000 word novel a ‘short novel’ and a 20,000 word story a ‘long story.’

Most bizarro books work best in the 15,000 – 45,000 word length. In other words, they are great short novels. I believe bizarro works best in the short novel form because bizarro requires a certain amount of strange elements in order for it to be considered bizarro. The deeper these strange elements are explored, the more bizarre the work will be. A short story just isn’t long enough to do these ideas justice. While there are some great bizarro short stories (such as those by D. Harlan Wilson or those published in The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction), I think the best bizarro works are those published in the short novel form. However, bizarro doesn’t work will in the long novel form because weirdness can get old pretty quick. If Alice in Wonderland was 4 times the length, I never would have gotten through it. If David Lynch movies were three hours I’d never want to watch them. Of course, there are some great bizarro novels like Chris Genoa’s Foop! and Kevin Donihe’s Washer Mouth: The Man Who Was a Washing Machine.

I really love short novels because you can read them in one sitting, like watching a movie. I am glad the bizarro writers are bringing them back.

5 Responses to “Novels vs. Short Stories”

  1. I really love the longer novels because I have a habit of reading slowly anyways and this isn’t a problem for me. I don’t think I’ve ever read an actual book in one sitting (yet.) I’m glad that you enjoy short novels but off-hand, given the choice, I always go for the longer one, just out of impulse. This could be a problem I have but eh, I’ll deal with it later.

    • carltonmellick Says:

      The funny thing is I prefer movies to be as long as possible. I think most movies should be at least 120 minutes. But I prefer books when they are as short.

      • I definitely agree with you about movies. God knows I don’t watch enough of them but when I do, I really like them to be long. Glad to see that we share that commonality.

  2. bobisimo Says:

    If David Lynch movies were three hours I’d never want to watch them.

    Inland Empire: 180 min | Poland:197 min … Haha. :D

    But seriously, I agree (even though I did like the movie). I’d like to see how a 2-hour version of the movie would look.

    Speaking of length, my last story hit 10K or 11K, and I was thinking of trying to chop that down, maybe in half. Teachers at school always drilled into my head that shorter was better, that the story should be as absolutely tight as possible and then cut some more. Got to the point where you felt guilty if your story went over 250 words. :p

    I like your take on word count, though. Nice to see you aim for 15,000+ words.

  3. Ron Peponis Says:

    Does e-Publishing make the length debate or word count issue redundant? Do e-Publishers attribute these titles (novel – novella – novellette), to the work they publish? I started writing a novel and discovered I had three short novels instead. I think the reading public’s tastes are changing and shorter is the way forward.

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