As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction. What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?
Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres. While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”). An article from WriterMag.com places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”). To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.
One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme. This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).
The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe
While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”). A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.
According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).
The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin
A novella is longer and more complex than a short story. This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements. In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well. An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from WriterMag.com puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”). This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.
Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).
The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
McEwan, Ian. “Some Notes on the Novella.” NewYorker.com, 29 Oct. 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/some-notes-on-the-novella.
Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. “Nebula Rules.” 15 Nov. 2019, nebulas.sfwa.org/about-the-nebulas/nebula-rules/.
“Novelette.” Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/novelette.
Sambuchino, Chuck. “How Long Is a Novella? And How Do You Query Agents for Them?” WritersDigest.com, 18 Nov. 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-long-is-a-novella-and-how-do-you-query-agents-for-them.
“Short Story.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story
“Short Story.” Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story
“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?” WriterMag.com, http://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/novella/.