Let's Talk Novellas

Contrary to what my brother thinks, a novella is not a fancy term for a romance novel (sorry, Tom).

Nor is it a Spanish vampire book.

In short, a novella is, well... a short novel. Maybe that doesn't sound as exciting as a Spanish romance novel; however, novellas are pretty exciting in the literary world.

Today we're going to talk about novellas and hopefully, together we will learn something new about them! (: 

What is a novella?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a novella is a short novel or a long short story. 

And there you have it. That's all folks. 

Just kidding. 

There is still a lot more to a novella than the Oxford Dictionary's definition, so let's dig a little deeper, shall we? 

The novella began to develop as a literary genre during the early Renaissance (circa 1300). The first example was Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron. It was a collection of novellas that consisted of 100 tales told by a group of people outside of Florence trying to escape the Black Death.

Novellas are intended to be read in one setting, so they are generally between 20,000-50,000 words, which is anywhere from an 80-160 page book. With so many 500+ page novels out there, it's easy to see how difficult it can be to tell a compelling story in such few words. Let's just say, the phrase every word counts is vital in this situation. If you want to read more about novella from an author's perspective, check out Ian McEwan's article from The New Yorker. It's a good one! 

Because the author has a word limit, the structure of the story is different from those novels that are thick enough to be used as a doorstop. Typically, there are fewer conflicts presented in the story. While novels tend to have multiple subplots thrown into the mix, a novella might only feature one.

Now that we've learned a little bit more about the novella, let's end this post by looking at some examples! 

Classic Examples:
  • Animal Farm - George Orwell: A farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. With flaming idealism and stirring slogans, they set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. Thus the stage is set for one of the most telling satiric fables ever penned –a razor-edged fairy tale for grown-ups that records the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible. 
  • A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens: The story of Ebenezer Scrooge opens on a Christmas Eve as cold as Scrooge's own heart. That night, he receives three ghostly visitors: the terrifying spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Each takes him on a heart-stopping journey, yielding glimpses of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the horrifying specters of Want and Ignorance, even Scrooge's painfully hopeful younger self. Will Scrooge's heart be opened? Can he reverse the miserable future he is forced to see? 
  • The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm, it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behavior through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures. 
  • The Dead - James Joyce: Often cited as the best work of short fiction ever written, Joyce's elegant story details a New Year's Eve gathering in Dublin that is so evocative and beautiful that it prompts the protagonist's wife to make a shocking revelation to her husband—closing the story with an emotionally powerful epiphany that is unsurpassed in modern literature.
  • Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes: With more than five million copies sold, Flowers for Algernon is the beloved, classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie's intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance--until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?

Modern Examples:
  • Home - Toni Morrison: An angry and self-loathing veteran of the Korean War, Frank Money finds himself back in racist America after enduring trauma on the front lines that left him with more than just physical scars. His home--and himself in it--may no longer be as he remembers it, but Frank is shocked out of his crippling apathy by the need to rescue his medically abused younger sister and take her back to the small Georgia town they come from, which he's hated all his life. As Frank revisits the memories from childhood and the war that leave him questioning his sense of self, he discovers a profound courage he thought he could never possess again.
  • The Mist - Stephen King: It's a hot, lazy day, perfect for a cookout until you see those strange dark clouds. Suddenly a violent storm sweeps across the lake and ends as abruptly and unexpectedly as it had begun. Then comes the mist...creeping slowly, inexorably into town, where it settles and waits, trapping you in the supermarket with dozens of others, cut off from your families and the world. The mist is alive, seething with unearthly sounds and movements. What unleashed this terror? Was it the Arrowhead Project---the top secret government operation that everyone has noticed but no one quite understands? And what happens when the provisions have run out and you're forced to make your escape, edging blindly through the dim light?
  • Shopgirl - Steven Martin: Lonely, depressed, Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.
  • The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett: When the Queen in pursuit of her wandering corgis stumbles upon a mobile library she feels duty bound to borrow a book. Aided by Norman, a young man from the palace kitchen who frequents the library, Bennett describes the Queen's transformation as she discovers the liberating pleasures of the written word.
  • We The Animals - Justin Torres: Three brothers tear their way through childhood — smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn — he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white — and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times.
    Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another. From the intense familial unity felt by a child to the profound alienation he endures as he begins to see the world, this beautiful novel reinvents the coming-of-age story in a way that is sly and punch-in-the-stomach powerful.

All images and books summaries via Goodreads


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