The Art of the Novella

I am growing tired of trilogies these days—and series in general (in both books and film). It seems like every successful piece of intellectual property in the entertainment industry must be prolonged indefinitely. What happened to a single complete story with a beginning, middle, and end? Most series would best be novels, most novels would best be short stories, and most short stories would best not exist.

Some stories certainly deserve and require extra length, but most of the time the serialization of stories seems to be for commercial rather than artistic reasons. If a book/movie/tv show was successful financially then the publishers/producers will repeat the formula, hoping to continue selling that IP. As someone trying to make a living as a writer, I can sympathize with that motive; however, as a reader I am not interested. I simply don’t have the time to read multiple multi-book series. What I most desire is a single complete story, told as succinctly as possible—preferably something I can complete in one sitting.

That is why, for me, the novella is the ideal form of literature. At around 20-40,000 words, a novella is roughly the same length as a screenplay or movie. It’s short enough to be read in one sitting, which enhances the reading experience, keeping you immersed in the fictional world and focused on the narrative, not distracted by interruptions from the real world. Novels are generally too long to read in one sitting, so you must take breaks and return to the distractions of reality.

Of course, some stories warrant the length of a novel—and even multiple novels, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Those authors did the work to create an epic narrative worth the extra pages. There is so much depth to their worlds and characters that multiple books were necessary to explore it all. But not every writer takes the care of Tolkien, Herbert, or Martin. Many books are extended into series just for the sake of marketing.

Contrary to intuition, it is not necessarily easier to write a short story as opposed to a long novel. It can be more difficult to fit in full character development, theme, and plot with less words—but talented writers are able to pull it off. Think of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson or “‘—All You Zombies—’” by Robert A. Heinlein. Some stories can be too short to develop any plot or characters, such as my flash fiction piece, “The Simulation Test” (~400 words). In stories that short, you can really only explore an idea. When you expand to a full short story (1,500 to 7,500 words) you can start to include plots and characters, but you cannot explore either in depth until you get to the novelette length (7,500 to 17,500 words).

Then there’s the novella, technically 17,500 to 40,000 words, a length that allows writers to include the depth that short stories cannot while excluding the tangential fat of novels. Many literary classics were novellas, including The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Candide by Voltaire, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Those writers also wrote longer books that they are equally famous for, but two of my favorite contemporary authors, Ted Chiang and Thomas Ligotti, have never written anything longer than a novella.

Despite the success of those aforementioned books, novellas never took off commercially in the past because of business and technological reasons related to the publishing industry at that particular time in history. Due to the cost of printing, it wasn’t profitable to publish short books (or excessively long ones), so the market for novellas never developed. Early in their careers, authors wrote short stories for magazines to break into the industry, then once established they were financially incentivized to write exclusively novels (or a series of novels). Novellas were in the no-man’s land of book publishing—too long for the magazines and too short for the book publishers. But now, in the age of ebooks and print-on-demand, length is no longer a concern.

H.P. Lovecraft was an exception from the past, in that most of his best stories were either novelettes or novellas. This may be because he held no consideration for the commercial success of his writing—its artistic merit always came first and foremost. As a result he made very little money from his writing during his lifetime, but his loss was our gain. Lovecraft only ever wrote two short novels, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (~51,000 words) and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (~42,000 words). His novellas included At the Mountains of Madness (~40,000 words), The Shadow Over Innsmouth (~27,000 words), The Whisperer in Darkness (~26,500 words), and The Shadow Out of Time (~25,000 words). Horror classics such as “The Colour Out of Space” (~12,500 words), “The Call of Cthulhu” (~11,900 words), and “The Rats in the Walls” (~8,000 words) were all novelettes. Lovecraft seemed to especially excel at the novelette length. As a result, his plots and characters were not as fully developed, but neither of those elements were his primary concern. Lovecraft’s main goal in writing fiction was to portray an idea or mood.

“Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood.

H.P. Lovecraft in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction

The publishing industry used to (and sometimes still does) pay by the word, which entices writers to be more long-winded, but that model makes little sense today in a world flooded by content where the most valuable thing is one’s attention and time. In that sense, a shorter denser story is more valuable than a longer bloated one. People still (and always will) love stories and want to see, read, and hear them. But writers must take into consideration the increasing competition for readers’ time and attention, and therefore try to tell their stories as concisely as possible.

My novella, Work for Idle Hands, was originally a novelette, but I decided to expand it into a novella, which I think made the story stronger. The characters developed more fully, and the world/backstory/themes became richer. I could have expanded upon the story even further into a full novel, but that would have detracted from the work and made it weaker. Any additions beyond the final version would have been nonessential filler.

I do have several stories in the works featuring more rich and complex material that will definitely be novels. A smaller number of those novels may lead to series—if and only if they prove to be worthy of sequels. But series should be the exception, not the default, as they so often are today, especially in the realm of self-publishing (because multi-book series are more profitable than standalones).

Perhaps it is a personal preference on my part, but I would rather an author err on the shorter side and write a story that leaves me wanting more than a bloated story that leaves me feeling like it wasted my time. Other people have different story preferences and prefer long extended series—and more power to them—I just want more standalone books also. I will be aiming to write more stories of novella-length in the future, and I hope to see more of my favorite contemporary authors do the same.

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