A novella is a piece of prose fiction, usually numbering between 15,000 and 60,000 words. Sometimes called a novelette, a short novel, or a long story, this literary format refers to tales of intermediate length—longer than a short story and shorter than a full-length novel.
The English words “novels” and “novellas” derive from the Italian word novelle. According to Encyclopedia.com, “The form was developed by Giovanni Boccaccio in the Decameron (1348–53), and has proved popular since the 18th century.” The Decameron consisted of 100 stories told within a sophisticated frame structure. Each story focuses on a main character and contains a central conflict. The individual tales in The Decameron have smaller word counts than modern novellas. Boccaccio’s work introduced audiences to a new format, featuring short narratives with focused plot lines, that has remained popular for the past 650 years.
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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, 1895
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 1898
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1902
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, 1912
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, 1915
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, 1937
Animal Farm by George Orwell, 1945
The Mist by Stephen King, 1980
What Makes a Novella Unique?
In addition to its intermediate length, a novella usually contains rich character development built around a central plot. Unlike novels, which have room for elaborate backstory and multiple points of view, novellas typically focus on one main character over the course of a limited timeframe. You won’t find many extraneous subplots in novellas; there isn’t room. Novellas span the popular fiction genres, including science fiction, horror, literary fiction, romance, and mystery.
Often, book publishers release novellas as part of short story collections. Sometimes, they’re printed on their own or combined with another novella to form a book. Magazines and literary journals may publish novellas in serial format, as well.
A Call for Submissions
Looking at the prompts for novella-writing contests, you can see that the exact length of a novella varies significantly from one publication to the next.
Here are just a few of the ways that publications and contests define the novella:
“We welcome manuscripts of 7,500 – 20,000 words. All submissions must be self-contained works of fiction. We welcome longer novel excerpts so long as the submission entered can stand alone as its own entity. The novelette and novella form carries a bunch of meanings and suggestions. They act like novels but are crafted with the concision and containment of a short story. This in-between space creates opportunities to explore linear and non-linear narratives, alike, as well as experimental approaches to perspective, structure, and language.” —Big Fiction Magazine
“The Miami University Novella Prize is awarded annually to a novella-length manuscript of original fiction (18,000–40,000 words).” —Miami University Press
“A novella is a work of fiction between 17,000-40,000 words. Ian McEwan says: “To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie.” Novellas, rather than focusing on the large-scale issues you will find a novel, focus more on a character’s emotional and personal development. A novella may have fewer conflicts than a novel. At the same time, the novella will be more nuanced and complicated than a short story. A novella can be a great opportunity to tell a story that you may have otherwise abandoned.” —Miami Book Fair/de Groot Prize
“10,000-30,000 words recommended. We’ll consider works slightly outside of these parameters, but don’t push them too much. 40,000 words, for instance, is a novel, not a novella.” —Driftwood Press
“Until the end of this open period, Castrum Press will be considering novellas of between 20,000 and 74,999 words in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. If it’s speculative and fits the bill, we want to take a look at it.” —Castrum Press
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.