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What Is the Difference Between a Novella and a Short Story?

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We typically put fiction into one of two categories: It's either a short story, or it's a novel. But there is another variation that lands somewhere in between the two. Yes, the novella. What exactly separates a short story from a novella from a novel, you ask?

As with most art forms, the label is somewhat malleable. When it comes down to it, though, it's all about word count. Atonement author Ian McEwan, discussing his love of the form in The New Yorker in 2012, defined the novella as being between roughly 20,000 and 40,000 words. Writer's Digest says it can run up to 50,000 words. Around 30,000 is more typical.

Anything more than that 50,000 words is probably a full novel. Short stories, which are designed to be read in one sitting, are usually only a few thousand words long and written for publication in a magazine or as part of a collection. The highest word count many literary magazines will publish is around 10,000, but most stories are even shorter, under 7500 words or so.

This leaves the novella in a weird in-between space where it's too long to publish in a magazine or literary journal and too short to publish as a book. (Yes, there's another in-between category for those stories between 10,000 and 20,000 words: the "novelette.") For publishers, putting out a novella isn't a very attractive option. Novellas look pretty small once they're bound, and customers aren't always keen on spending hardcover prices for teeny-tiny volumes.

Some of the difference between the forms is just marketing, though. Novellas have been around since the Middle Ages, and some standard English class assignments are on the list. Even if you don't know it, you've surely read one, probably thinking that it was just an extra-long short story or a rather short book. Perhaps it was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Maybe it was Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome or H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. All can be classified as novellas.

Despite the fact that these novellas turned into classics, you probably don't see a lot of contemporary examples at your local bookstore. Even the most popular writers have trouble finding a publisher willing to take on their in-between length stories. Stephen King, or example, struggled to get them out into the world until he finally published Different Seasons, a collection of four of his novellas, in 1982. And that had nothing to do with the quality of those stories; one was later adapted for the screen as The Shawshank Redemption.

In the afterword to the book, he wrote of the trouble he faced getting the novellas published because they were "too long to be short and too short to be really long." When he pitched his editor on a book of novellas, King recalled, the editor was polite, but "his voice says some of the joy may have just gone out of his day." In the end, he got the book published, but even for a hugely popular author, it was an uphill battle. Even for the biggest names in publishing, it seems, the novella is a no-go.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek them out; according to McEwan, they're the "perfect form of prose fiction." Even if they go on a little longer than 10,000 words.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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