Literary Terms: Novel, Novella, Novelette

As I threatened last week, offering a few definitions to my writing and non-writing friends has now become a question I feel called to answer. In this installment, an explanation for why books of certain sizes merit certain “length” labels.  Hearkening back to the literature classes I took for my German and French majors, we spent time studying everything from aphorisms (I’m recalling La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, which could almost be equated with Flash fiction for their super-short constraints) to plays and novels. However, because of the time constraints of a semester, most frequently we read novellas. In fact, one memorable professor spent almost all of my freshman year fall term waxing lyrical about Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroeger as the pinnacle of the novella. It was written in sonata form (a composition in three segments exploring two themes). We translated almost every word to wring out the slightest nuances of the internal struggle within the protagonist for the ascendancy of the passion of his Italian side versus the repression and logic of his German side and searched for all the instances of themes slightly recast. Ian McEwen of the New Yorker would probably have found my professor a kindred soul when he wrote “Some Notes on the Novella“.

A memorable class for many reasons. But in college, none of my professors discussed the reason for the distinct lengths of the various works we read.

That didn’t become a topic until I started writing. Because I write in the speculative fiction genres, I follow the guidelines the Science Fiction Writers of America outlined for their Hugo and Nebula awards:

  • Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
  • Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
  • Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words;
  • Novel: 40,000 words or more.

This seems clear-cut enough (to me) to have closed the door on the definition of how long a novel is–or at least what the lower boundary for a novel length is. Professional editor Rob Bignell reiterates the SFWA guidelines, and then expands on them with a list of pros and cons of what can be achieved at each length.

Where things get tricky: Not all authors write in this genre. If you start poking the corners of the Internet, you can start with the humorous: what is the average book length, and what are examples of the outliers on the spectrum? Then move to the entirely commercially focused lengths of what the major publishing houses will produce (where that site’s advice also includes avoiding the term novelette, which it considers a derogatory term). And finally to a man who casts himself as an expert at helping get authors published, who goes into the variations in different markets for commercially focused publication.

Even the SFWA allows for some novellas to be submitted as novels, creating further fluidity and options for misunderstanding. I can tell you as an author, there’s nothing more disheartening than having advertised a work as a novelette and been told my novel is too short.

So my educational point of the day: When I include word counts and length descriptors with my stories, they will follow the SFWA guidelines, and have been constructed (to the best of my ability) understanding the pros and cons Bignell outlines. Shorter works will necessarily have a smaller cast of characters and fewer subplots, but should still feel complete in themselves. Longer works have the space to develop additional subplots and themes, as well as a larger cast of characters. I tend to prefer spare prose, so doubt I’ll ever reach the epic (to me) length of 100,000+ words, but I will let readers know what my word counts are in my book descriptions with the understanding that this small bit of context may also help set expectations about the length of entertainment I’m offering in a given title.

Literary Terms: High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Frame (Portal) Stories

Long ago, in a different world, I was a German major (among other things) at University. One of my most memorable seminars was one focused on my favorite genre, fantasy. While there are those who argue that this is “merely” a genre, the incorporation of themes, structure, and leitmotifs in these stories has made them rich to study. From the perspective of my class, this stretched back to the German Romantics in the late 1700s with their freighted search for the Blaue Blume. In fact, my seminar was offered by the German department at my university, by the same professor who taught us about Sturm und Drang and literary Romanticism (long since retired). As rooted in academia as this seminar was, though, some of the things I learned have come up in the context of my writing life, and some of my author friends have requested that I cudgel my brain to share the snippets of what I remember having learned in the early 90s.

According to my professor, there are two main classes of fantasy: low fantasy, wherein the world of the story is recognizable to its readers, and high fantasy, wherein the world is completely made up and operates on its own rules/laws, and likely has its own languages, flora and fauna, and magical tropes including (but not limited to) spells, potions, etc. Because of its familiar world setting, magical realism is related to low fantasy, but follows a slightly different set of rules and conventions. Any of these can take advantage of the frame/portal story convention to make the bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The primary text of our class was Michael Ende’s Die Unendliche Geschichte (known to Americans as The Neverending Story). This is a classic frame story with a young boy who lives in a world we recognize being sucked into a high fantasy world through the portal of a magical book. There were a couple structural elements that made the story unique: printing the frame story in one color of ink and the fantasy in another, as well as starting each succeeding chapter with a word that began with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet.

Another text we addressed was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude. This one is considered a seminal introduction to magical realism, with the action taking place in a fictional (but reality-based, almost everyman style of) South American town over the course of a century. The language is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact, and incorporates ghosts and mystical experiences with as much believability as the buildings and courtyards in which those occurrences are recounted as everyday happenings.

From the primary divide of whether we can recognize the world in which the story is set (i.e. whether a story would fall into the low fantasy or high fantasy classification), a multitude of sub-genres have sprung. Interestingly, in refreshing my memory for this post, I’ve discovered that the same course taught by a different teacher or in a different language might very well use different terms. A few useful references that provide some insight into these differences are:

  1. It’s All Fantasy (fantasy genre guide)
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature
  3. Fantasy – Definition, History, Characteristics and Meaning
  4. Gizmodo’s list of 10 fantasy terms
  5. TV Tropes main fantasy entry

Given the nature of myths and legends, fantasy has long been a useful framework for humans to put themselves in an unfamiliar space to explore universal themes from a different perspective. Together with Science Fiction, it forms the Speculative Fiction genre world, which is where my author brain is happiest playing. In fact, I consider one of the themes of my published stories to be “there is magic in our world, have we but the eyes to see it.” From this perspective, while it’s useful to consider genres and tropes, I find I have the most fun exploring how those can be bent into new versions of themselves–though I don’t foresee myself spending too much time in entirely made-up places. In the meantime, I’m laughing at my ability to retain such snippets for so long, even when they have no real bearing on an author’s ability to produce a good, engaging story.

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