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Types of Fiction: Novels, Novellas & Short Stories

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  • 0:05 Types of Fiction
  • 1:09 Short Stories
  • 3:04 Novella
  • 3:53 Novels
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Learn how fiction is organized by length into three categories: novels, novellas and short stories. Explore the general characteristics of each type, and learn about some famous examples.

Types of Fiction

Remember the thrill of your first chapter books? Books with chapters were exciting to me and my friends because they felt like a more grown-up reading experience, even if the chapters were little more than a few paragraphs each. Later, in high school, we groaned when assigned a 700-page book about Thomas Jefferson. Needless to say, our love of chapter books was completely conditional.

Fiction writers don't bother themselves with what my school friends and I think of the length of their literary works. Instead, they write until they get to the end of the story they want to tell. This means that fiction ranges from a few pages to hefty, multi-volume tomes.

Fiction - the made-up stories - can be organized into three categories based on length: short stories, novellas and novels. The lengths for each aren't set in stone, as we'll later see, so think of them as general guidelines. The varying lengths often have some effect on the scope of the stories, with larger, sweeping novels often having larger, sweeping casts and plots. Shorter fiction has less room for a lot of characters and big story arcs.

Short Stories

The shortest type of fiction is the short story, which ranges in length from a handful of pages to over thirty pages. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that a short story should not be longer than what a person could read in a single sitting, which he defined as 'requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal.' Poe should know what he's talking about; he wrote well-known stories like 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'

The short story has its origins in fables and myths, stories that were not sprawling epics but concise tales containing only a few characters and often a single focused message. Think of stories like 'The Tortoise and the Hare' or the myth of Icarus.

Again, Edgar Allan Poe had some thoughts about the construction of what he called a 'short prose narrative.' Poe said, 'A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out.' Simply put, Poe thought that short stories should have a single focus, and each incident and character should serve the author's desired effect. One way to think about it is to view the short story as an appetizer made of a few ingredients, while a novel is a more complex meal with lots of ingredients.

Writing in the 1840s, Poe marked the early stages of the development of the short story in the United States. It wasn't until after World War II that the short story grew in popularity and could be found in the pages of The New Yorker and other well-known magazines. Famous examples from this time include 'The Lottery' by Shirley Jackson (1948), J.D. Salinger's 'Nine Stories' (1953) and 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' by Flannery O'Connor (1955).

Today, changes in both the book and magazine publishing industries have made short stories a bit of a specialized form, with less magazines publishing short stories and book publishers less likely to take a chance on a collection of stories than a novel.

Novella

While the novella sounds like an exotic Italian dessert, you've probably been assigned one or two by an English teacher. The novella lies between the short story and the novel in terms of length and scope. Again, these are just general guidelines and there are always exceptions, but I think of a novella in terms of some of the most famous English-language examples: George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899).

Chances are you have read one of these novellas before and noticed they are slimmer than the novels sold today. Different in terms of content, all three of these novellas have plots that can be summed up succinctly, and teachers love them because they deal with meaty topics and themes like communism and allegory (Animal Farm), colonialism and savagery (Heart of Darkness) and returning to nature (The Call of the Wild).

Novels

The type of fiction that gets the most attention these days, the novel, is the longest of the three types of fiction. From Harry Potter to War and Peace, these are generally the books with lots of characters and complicated plots. There is no set word count to be considered a novel, but the current publishing standard is somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words.

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