09 June 2012

It's a Long Story

by John M. Floyd

I have often heard fiction writers say, "Write whatever you like, but make sure it's either long enough to be a novel or short enough to be a short story."  Meaning, of course, that anything in between is hard to sell.  And what's in between is called a novella.

Hiking into No Man's Land

Marketability is of course not quite as big an issue these days, since the publishing and self-publishing of e-books has allowed novellas to be presented as easily as novels and shorts--but the novella does remain something of an oddity.  For those writers (like me) who continued to publish quite a few stories the traditional way, there just aren't many print markets out there that will consider novella-length manuscripts.  Very few high-circulation magazines accept novella submissions, and not many anthologies either.  The only easy way to publish novellas in print form seems to be via collections by established authors like Stephen King, who group four of five of them together in a book.

This past year, I sat down just after the Christmas holidays, when all our kiddos and grandbabies had left and our house was as quiet at Tut's tomb, and wrote a 16,000-word western mystery.  That's not quite in novella range (some editors consider the starting point to be around 20K) but it's close enough to make that story difficult to sell.  So why did I write it?  And why didn't I at least make it shorter or longer, so it would "fit in"?  Well, if you're a writer, you know the answer to that: some stories just have to be a certain length.  To have added more would have seemed like "padding" and to have taken anything out would have hurt the story.  As it turned out, I'm satisfied with it--but I do realize there's a real possibility that the manuscript might never be read by anyone but me, and that I might one day wind up using it for scratch paper, or to prop up a wobbly table leg.

Lights, camera, action

There seems to be only one real advantage to writing novella-length stories: they translate well into screenplays.  When a short story is adapted to film, something has to be added to it.  (Example: 3:10 to Yuma.  Elmore Leonard's short story begins when the two main characters are already in town, sitting in the hotel room; by the time that scene happens in the most recent film version, the movie's more than halfway done.)  Conversely, when a novel is adapted to the screen, something has to be left out.  (Example: almost any novel/movie you can think of.)  So far as I know, there are only three ways to successfully avoid those problems:

1. Adapt a novel into a miniseries (Centennial, Lonesome Dove, Shogun, The Winds of War).

2.  Adapt a short story into a short film or a half-hour TV drama (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, Death Valley Days, Twilight Zone).

3.  Adapt a novella.

Again, well-written novellas usually become good movies.  I'm reminded here of two by Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body.  Those were adapted into the outstanding films The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont) and Stand by Me (Rob Reiner), and I believe one of the many reasons that both were so good was that they were so faithful to the original stories.  There was little need to either trim or inflate them.  The same holds true for Norman Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It, which became the excellent movie by Robert Redford.

Notable novellas

I can't resist listing a dozen of my favorites:

The Postman Always Rings Twice -- James M. Cain
The Time Machine -- H. G. Wells
Of Mice and Men -- John Steinbeck
The Mist -- Stephen King
The Third Man -- Graham Greene
I Am Legend -- Richard Matheson
Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
Tenkiller -- Elmore Leonard
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- P. K. Dick
Legends of the Fall -- Jim Harrison
Shopgirl -- Steve Martin
The Call of the Wild -- Jack London

NOTE: Many of the above did result in darn good movies.  And some didn't.

Just a few questions, ma'am . . .

What are some of your favorite novellas?  In general, do you find them more enjoyable than novels or shorts?  Less enjoyable?  Do you have a preference?  (I don't.  To me, length doesn't matter if the story's good.)

Besides, the term "novella" is subjective.  I've heard people refer to A Christmas Carol as a short story and to The Old Man and the Sea as a novel.  But who really cares?  Good fiction is good fiction.

I also heard someplace that if you'd like to read Herman Melville and you aren't in the mood to read 800 pages about a hunt for a sperm whale, Billy Budd is a reasonable alternative.  (Sounds reasonable to me.)

. . . and a definition

The following silly poem might be a good way to close this silly discussion.  I call it "In Literary Terms."

"A short story's simple, but what's a 'novella'?"
Joe asked writing teacher Ms. West;
"And how do I know 'novelettes' when I see them,
And what's a 'short novel'?" he pressed.
"In fact, why not just call all three the same thing?"
Joe continued while scratching his head.
Ms. West just leaned forward, face solemn, eyes twinkling;
"Well, that's a long story," she said.


  1. I can think of two quick examples of short stories adapted for the screen that had so much added to them as to be almost unrecognizable: Ian Fleming's Octopussy and Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder.

    And I happen to like novellas.

  2. The first story I ever submitted was a novella, and it was accepted -- The Book Case. It originally was 77 pages of manuscript but Janet Hutchings at EQMM gave me tips to cut it by around half. Even at that I think the version that was printed in EQMM rang in at 33 pages. Little did I know!

  3. John, the novella/movie connection you made is interesting. James Joyce's "The Dead" is another good example of that. John Huston's film was a very faithful adaptation of the book.

    Best of luck with your novella.

  4. Two of my favorite non-crime genre writers, Lois McMaster Bujold and Sharon Shinn, use the novella to return to worlds they've buit and beloved series characters. Bujold's Winterfair Gifts is a deeply satisfying addition to the series story (and an attempted murder mystery), and Shinn's book Quatrain groups novellas set in all four of her well developed worlds. Oh, and my not-quite-but-too-long (and too paranormal) for EQMM (I didn't even try), the 11,000-word "Shifting Is for the Goyim," will be e-published by Untreed Reads this month.

  5. The one that comes to mind is James Joyce's The Dead. John Huston's adaptation was beautiful and so faithful to the book.

    John, good luck with your novella.

  6. Leigh, I agree with you on both your examples. Any fairly recent Bond movie uses very little of Fleming's original material, but I had expected more from the movie adaptation of Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder." I think it remains one of his best pieces, and also one of the best SF stories ever.

    Dale, it's interesting that "The Book Case" was trimmed by half--I remember that story. One of my stories in AHMM ran about 33 pages as well, and seems to be near the upper limit of what they will accept.

    Anita, I too enjoyed Huston's movie. I honestly do suspect that screenwriters find it much easier to convert novellas to movies.

    Liz, I'm glad you mentioned Untreed Reads. They do indeed accept novellas, and seem to do a good job of getting them publicized.

  7. John, I like your list. I'm actually something of a novella fan, myself. The length makes for easy digestion by the reader while still allowing great scope on the writer's part. Too much best-selling fiction today seems long on words and short on content; padded to the point of ridiculousness.

  8. Thanks, David. I agree that novella-length fiction sometimes incorporates the best of both worlds. And yes, all of us have read novels that would have made much better short stories or novellas.

    I think it was Hemingway who said he never in his life started out intending to write a novel. He always started out intending to write a short story, and sometimes they just grew into novels. (And I personally believe his short stories were better.)

  9. Herschel Cozine09 June, 2012 12:09

    If I'm not mistaken, "The Birds" was a novella, or perhaps shorter. (Obviously I never read it).

    Enjoyed the article, John, as well as the bit of rhyme, (which will come as no surprise to you).

  10. Herschel, I appreciate the kind words. As for The Birds, I've heard it referred to as a novella, a novelette, and a short story. I've also heard different accounts of where it was first published: some say in Good Housekeeping, some say in a collection of Du Maurier's work in the early fifties. And I also have a copy of AHMM someplace that includes that story.

    If it is in fact a novella instead of a short story, I probably should've included it in my list of favorites, because I liked both the story and the film.

  11. Until I read your list, I hadn't realized how many of my favorite stories are novellas. Makes me wonder if I'm just drawn to the genre.

    I know you'll be shocked SHOCKED! to discover that I have problems keeping my own shorts from turning into novellas. lol Thanks for highighting one possible reason.

  12. Dixon, I AM shocked. Shocked, I tell you.

    Again, if the story's good, who cares what length it is?

  13. Excellent list of of novellas! And yes, Daphne Du Maurier specialized in novellas - not just The Birds, but a really great one is "The Little Photographer."

  14. I have not read "The Little Photographer"!! Thanks for the recommendation.

  15. In keeping with Eve's recommendation, read Du Maurier's "Don't Look Now"--another great novella!

  16. So many stories, so little time . . .

    Thanks to all of you for the comments and the suggested reading.

  17. Hey John, I tred to e-mail you with something this posting reminded me of but got a "mail undeliverable" response. Have you changed e-mail? Respond to my att.net address if you will. Thanks.

  18. Wayne, it sounds as if my server gatekeepers are getting a little too enthused. Nope, I'm still at jfloyd@teclink.net.


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