Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

What is a novella? How is it different than a short story?

In terms of length, a novella falls in between a short story and a novel and runs roughly fifteen thousand words to eighty thousand words. It’s not quite short enough to be considered “short,” but it’s not a full-fledged novel, either. Still, a novella requires the same attention to craft as the other forms. In particular, a novella should have fully fleshed out characters and a tension that builds intensity to a satisfying—though not pat—ending.

The length of a work of fiction is tied to the scope of the conflict. The longer the fiction, the wider the scope. A short story might cover one facet of a conflict. Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “A Temporary Matter” follows a couple in a strained relationship over the course of a few days when utility work results in scheduled power outages in their home, forcing them to come together for their evening meals. Joyce Carol Oates’ novel We Were the Mulvaneys shows a family’s unraveling after the rape of the Mulvaney’s daughter. It spans decades and focuses on change and how each family member struggles and reels in the aftermath. (Keep in mind scope isn’t the same as duration. Novels can take place over the course of several days and short stories can cover years.)

A novella’s scope is not as vast at the novel or as limited as the short story. Carson McCullers’ novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café” tells the story of Miss Amelia, a town’s outcast, who goes through significant changes after the arrival of Cousin Lymon, a strange man who claims to be her kin. The conflict centers on how this man influences Miss Amelia and, through her, the town, and the consequences of their relationship.

While it’s certainly useful to understand the different forms, don’t get too caught up in thoughts about length as you’re writing. Anthony Doerr, an author who has written novels, novellas, and short stories has this to say:

Ultimately, though, I’m learning that my narratives – stories, novellas, or novels – have to be as long as they need to be, and I’m not entirely in charge of them; their shapes and trajectories will dictate their length.

Don’t try to fit your fiction into a predetermined container. Be open to the demands of the fiction in front of you.