Have you ever read stories like R. L. Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde (1886) or Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843)? If so, then you have read some classic novellas - they look like rather thin books, but still pack a punch when it comes to story-telling. 

But, what is the difference between a novella and a novel? Well, the novella is a piece of narrative fiction with a plot and characters; it tells a story, but it is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Let's take a closer look at the origins and some famous examples of this form.

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Table of contents

    Novella: Meaning

    The Novella is Italian in origin; it dates back to the Renaissance and was first used to share local events, anecdotes, and probably gossip. They could be political, romantic and/or humorous in nature. Italian authors like Boccaccio, who wrote The Decameron (1349-53), developed the novella into (longer) short stories with a framed narrative.

    The title of The Decameron has its origins in Greek and means 'ten days'. The novella contains a set of stories each told by a different character. Ten young women and men escape a plague-struck Florence to a villa in the countryside, where they take turns to rule for a day. The person who is ruler for the day decides what stories should be told. Ten tales are told each day for ten days and cover themes of love, deceit, fortune, vice, and human will.

    The Decameron is not an anthology (a collection of tales). This is because the narrative links the stories together under the roof of shared experience as the storytellers entertain each other during a period of crisis — the plague.

    Robert John Clements writes that 'by the time of Boccaccio, then, a novella was a story that could be true or fictional, new or simply unusual, written or recited.'1 Novellas could vary in form, and Boccaccio's 'stories within in a story' novella was just one example of a form that novellas could take.

    Chaucer introduced the novella to England with his Canterbury Tales (ca. 1387-1400).1 Although written in verse, Chaucer's shared narrative of pilgrims resembles the ten narrators in The Decameron who tell their tales to each other under one roof for entertainment, and his topics also tend to cover love, deceit, luck, and vice.

    Chaucer read Canterbury Tales aloud to an audience which was common practice in a time when levels of literacy were quite low.

    Elizabethan playwrights like Shakespeare adapted material from novellas for their plays, as did Jacobean dramatists like Beaumont and Fletcher.

    The novella continued to exist into the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of sharing ideas and stories. During this period, another genre of novellas known as Amatory Fiction began to develop which usually concerned romantic and scandalous affairs and featured innocent women taking revenge on arrogant and forceful men. Many of these novellas were written by women, including Delarivière Manley's The Power of Love (1720) and Eliza Haywood's Fantomina; or Love in a Maze (1724).

    Novella: Examples

    The novella was once considered less serious than a novel but this has since changed, and the modern novella can be concerned with the same socio-political themes as the novel.

    Typical examples of the novella include:

    The War of the Worlds

    This novella is one of the first known stories to describe an alien invasion of earth and is considered a turning point in science-fiction literature. The action spans a period of a few years: it opens with the narrator observing lights on Mars; these are dismissed, yet continue for several nights. Later, a star is seen crashing down to Earth; it lands on Horsell Common near Maybury and turns out to be a cylinder. Soon after this, Martians emerge and the invasion begins. Much of the book focuses on the complacency of humans versus the superior intelligence of the Martians, who invade the earth in search of food and a warmer climate. The invasion ends when the Martians are killed off by terrestrial bacteria.

    Heart of Darkness

    Conrad's novella follows the journey of its narrator, Marlow, through the African jungle in search of a man called Kurtz, a successful agent who works for an ivory collection company. Kurtz has not been seen for some time and rumour has it that he is very ill. The story mostly takes place on an upriver journey and reveals Kurtz’s character piece by piece: the reputation he has made for himself with the local population, and the horrifying way in which he has gained control with his gun and knowledge of local rituals. When Marlow finds Kurtz, Kurtz tries to explain himself and his actions by saying he has seen into the very heart of things. He dies soon after, muttering, ‘The horror! The horror!’ (chapter 3). The novella raised themes of colonialism and imperialism which continue to be discussed in postcolonial literary studies today.

    The Old Man and the Sea

    Ernest Hemingway's novella describes the battle at sea between a fisherman called Santiago (the old man of the title) and a giant marlin. The battle lasts two days before Santiago manages to catch the fish and bring it to shore. Santiago collapses in his cabin and passes out; when he wakes up, he discovers much of the marlin has been eaten by a shark. The novella covers themes of life, death, and humanity, and it won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

    A more recent example is Karen Jenning’s An Island (2020), which was longlisted for the Booker prize in 2021. The story, a political allegory, describes four days in the life of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper when he rescues a refugee who is washed ashore. Over the four days, Samuel remembers his years on the mainland under colonial rule, independence and military dictatorship. His lack of trust and an old red hen are key factors in the novella’s sudden violent climax. The novella, despite its shortness, covers themes of colonialism, isolation and displacement.

    What other novellas can you think of? Some may be very familiar to you already, like A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens or R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

    What is the difference between novels and Novellas?

    Today, the main differences between novels and novellas are considered to be:

    • The story structure: novellas are extended short stories with one plot, whereas the novel may have one or more subplots in addition to its central storyline.
    • The length: the term 'novella' is used for stories that are longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. A novel is usually around 80,000 words or more, however, the margins are flexible and will vary from publisher to publisher.

    However, it was not until the 18th century that novels began to be understood as longer works of fiction. Before this, the term 'novel' was interchangeable with 'novella' or 'novellae' (meaning a collection of stories).

    For example, Daniel Defoe's popular text Robinson Crusoe (1719) was not called a novel when it was first published and was described by Defoe himself as ‘the stories of‘ or ‘the adventures of’ Crusoe. It contained all the elements of the novel as we understand it today but was not understood as such until later on.

    The novel form developed over the course of the 18th century and came to be recognised as serious literature with the works of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Samuel Richardson.

    Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), and Sir Charles Grandison (1754) broke away from the popular romance or picaresque fiction of the time. Richardson was concerned with moral behaviour in all of his novels, and it was this that helped establish the novel as something separate from sensationalist or popular fiction.

    Picaresque fiction: usually a novel that describes the adventures of a dishonest yet engaging hero as he moves through various places and levels of society. This was a popular form of sensationalist narrative during the 18th century in particular.

    Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, follows Pamela, a maidservant, in her prudent navigation of a relationship with her late mistress’ son until she marries him. The story is narrated mostly through Pamela’s letters and journal entries to her parents.

    An immediate bestseller, Pamela was widely imitated - although not always admiringly. Henry Fielding published his satirical parody Shamela (1740) only 5 months after Pamela came out. In Shamela, the virtuous Pamela is revealed to be a very naughty woman who deliberately manipulates her wealthy master into marrying her. Fielding wrote his parody in protest against what he considered the moral hypocrisy of Pamela.

    Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison both contain similar storylines, with kidnappings and attempted seductions as recurring elements. With these novels came the concept of the subplot: one or more storylines that follow minor or secondary characters in the book.

    The novella has a long history and, while it has never fallen out of use, it has been in and out of fashion in publishing. Currently, it is in demand, with publishers opening up their submissions specifically for novellas. Genres are wide-ranging and can include romance, sci-fi, the supernatural, comedy, and allegory.

    Novella - Key takeaways

    • The novella is a piece of narrative fiction with a plot and characters.
    • The novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel The novella is Italian in origin, dating from the Renaissance.
    • The novella was originally used to share local events, anecdotes that were political, romantic, and/or humorous in nature.
    • The term novella is used for stories that are longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.
    • The novella relies on one main plot, whereas the novel may have one or more subplots in addition to its central storyline.

    1 Robert John Clements, Anatomy of the Novella: the European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes, 1977.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Novella

    What is a novella?

    The novella is a piece of creative fiction longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

    What is a novella vs a novel?    

    The novella is shorter than a novel, and it relies on one main plot, whereas the novel may have one or more subplots in addition to its central storyline. 

    What is the purpose of a novella.

    The novella tells a story. The purpose will depend on the author’s intention; some novellas provide philosophical, political or social commentary, while others are commercial comedies and thrillers.

    What are the characteristics of novellas? 

    Novellas are shorter than a novel but longer than a short story, and they rely on one plot (no subplots).

    Do novellas get published?

    Currently the novella is in demand, with publishers opening up their submissions specifically for novellas.

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