“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
– Neil Gaiman
In this month’s post, we will be delving into the genre of short stories, along with its close cousin, the novella. A short story is a brief work of fictional prose that’s shorter and less elaborate than a novel. Short stories usually deal with one or a few characters, yet have a fully developed theme despite their shorter length. The length of a story generally dictates whether it’s considered a short story, a novella or a novel. There is some disagreement regarding the actual word count for each, but for this post we will use the following definitions: a short story is generally 1,000 to 8,000 words (though some can go as high as 20,000 words), a novella is approximately 17,500 to 40,000 words, and a novel is greater than 40,000 words.
While the greatest difference between short stories and novellas is the word count, there are other differences as well. A short story is often used to describe a single event, a single episode, or a tale of one particular character. It does not usually involve major twists and conflicts, nor significant sub-plots or multiple characters. As in a novel, short stories make use of plot and other dynamic components, but typically to a lesser degree. The form encourages economy of setting, narrative, plot, and character development. Many characters in short stories lack a “back story” or history, since the story is a more of a snapshot in time. Despite its relatively limited scope, however, a short story is often judged by its ability to provide a “complete” or satisfying treatment of its characters and subject. A short story is basically fictional prose, written in a narrative style that can be read in a single sitting.
Unlike a typical short story, a novella may contain multiple sub-plots, twists, and characters. Its length constraints mean there will be fewer conflicts in a novella than in a novel, but there will also be more nuance and complication than in a short story. Novellas are more often focused on a character's personal and emotional development rather than with large-scale issues, as would be more likely found in a novel. Novellas may or may not be divided into chapters and, like short stories, are often intended to be read in a single sitting.
Short stories gained popularity in the early 19th century; as the technology and economics of printing presses improved, more people gained access to newspapers and periodicals. While it would have been impractical to publish the entire text of a novel in a newspaper, complete end-to-end works of short fiction fit perfectly well. Such short stories provided the reader an escape during a time when access to entertainment was somewhat limited.
The novella began developing as a literary genre in the early Renaissance in works by Italian and French writers. It wasn’t until the late 18th or early 19th century, however, that the novella became more popular. The genre flourished in Germany (where it is known as the Novelle) in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, and was embraced by writers such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka. Characterized by brevity, self-contained plots that often end on a note of irony, a literate and easy-to-read style, and restraint of emotion, these Novellen were a major stimulant to the development of the modern short story in Germany.
Ironically, at a time when access to all forms of entertainment is at our fingertips thanks to the Internet, modern readers are demonstrating a renewed interest in short stories and novellas, and rediscovering classic works. The genre fits well into our busy modern lifestyles, allowing us to fill 15 or 30 minute gaps with a rewarding literary experience. Both short stories and novellas may fall into other genre categories (e.g., horror, magical realism, or science fiction), and both forms are often grouped together in anthologies or collections based on a larger genre, topics of interest, or a single author’s work.
Drop into your local library and take a glimpse into another world with a short story or novella!