Today’s Writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “novella.”
Since I’ve never written a novella nor helped anybody else write one, I had to look this literary definition up before I tackled the topic.
According to the well-respected Writers Digest, novellas are fictional stories usually told in 20,000 to 50,000 words, with 30,000 being about the average.
I don’t know about you but, off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of a single novella I’d ever read. Being an English major in college, I know I had to read a whole number of short stories – from John Updike’s A&P (which I incidentally hated) to Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find (which I incidentally loved).
Yeah, not so much. So I don’t blame you one bit if you’re drawing a blank as well. Yet here’s a short list of famous novellas I found when I did a simple search for them:
George Orwell’s Animal Farm
Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (which I actually did have to read in college; totally forgot about that)
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (another one I had to read in college. If you’re not naturally the most shiny, happy person in the world, do yourself a favor and don’t read it. It’s depressing as all get-out, as I remember. Actually, so is Billy Budd. What is up with the material they make English majors read? Are they trying to make them miserable human beings?)
H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
And speaking of The War of the Worlds, which you might very well have seen as a movie, here are some other novellas that could possibly be more recognizable as the Hollywood productions they inspired:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
I am Legend by Richard Matheson
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Now, I know I picked on Billy Budd and Heart of Darkness, and I fully stand by those criticisms. They’re miserably depressing. While I haven’t done any actual research into this theory, I would not at all be surprised to find out that neither Melville nor Conrad got enough hugs as children.
Then again, looking at the larger list around their two novellas, it seems reasonably fair to say that none of these lauded works are exactly comedies. Even Breakfast at Tiffany’s in its original form is about a very troubled young woman.
Animal Farm is, of course, a commentary against socialism. A Christmas Carol is a commentary against uncharitable lifestyles. And Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a commentary on the complexities of being human.
Even the science-fiction War of the Worlds has an intended moral or morals to it. It wasn’t written in a literary vacuum or for entertainment alone.
(Really, none of Wells’ books were, novella or otherwise. Though his stories are impressively imaginative and very well written, he was a die-hard socialist – and intense racist – whose opinions of how the world should be drove his writing.)
So it seems safe to say that novellas – at least those that go onto fame and fortune – are serious works of fiction meant to chastise or otherwise change society for the supposed better.
That’s not to say you can’t write something light and fluffy that takes up 20,000 to 50,000 words. But you might be hard-pressed to find your footing amidst such somber giants that have gone before.