Daniel C. Bartlett’s short fiction has appeared in a number of literary and crime-fiction publications, including Iron Horse Literary Review, Chiron Review, and Mystery Magazine. He’s also a novelist whose first book has been signed with a literary agent while a second nears completion. He’s comfortable writing both short and long fiction, but in this post he discusses the ground in between: the long story or “novella.” If you want a good example of the form, you need look no further than his story “A Complicated History,” in EQMM’s current issue (May/June 2022). It’s his EQMM debut! —Janet Hutchings
Flash fiction, short story, long story, novelette, novella, novel. Personally, I love all lengths and types of mystery fiction. What intrigues me is that each distinct form has its unique allure. So I wanted to reflect a bit on what I find appealing about those works that are longer than a typical short story but shorter than a typical novel.
I’m thinking of those stories that might be called long stories, novellas, or novelettes. Depending on who you ask, there might be some specifications that distinguish these. But those distinctions aren’t always clear and aren’t even consistent. What’s the minimum word count for a long story? What’s the maximum? Is a novella the same as a novelette? Is a novelette just a short novel? The answers to these questions vary. And honestly, that’s fine. I’m not one for strict rules.
So for my purposes here, I’ll refer to the long story, the novella, and novelette interchangeably. What interests me is the novella or long story’s unique position as not exactly a short story but not quite a novel. Existing obscurely in the range between the short story and the novel, the novella utilizes techniques of both long and short fiction. What I love about the novella or long story, is that it’s a hybrid form that can offer readers and writers the appealing attributes of two distinct forms of fiction.
The novella is at once extended like a novel and compact like a short story.
Fans of mystery stories are probably familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s writing as well as his critical ideas. Poe was a proponent of the short story form, and he established what he considered some rules of the form. Poe cites unity of effect, brevity, and writing toward a denouement as the principle guiding factors in the short story form. Of course, Poe also described conventions he identified as essential to detective fiction as well, but my focus here is on unique aspects of short, intermediate, and long fiction.
Although Poe’s “rules” for writing might seem a little narrow to contemporary writers and readers, his guidelines do point to some generally helpful insights. Poe argues that the power of the short story lies in its focus upon a single character, event, emotion, or the series of emotions brought about by a single event. The short story’s narrative method, according to Poe’s requirement for unity, brevity, and singularity of effect, is intensively focused selection of details. I tend to think there’s some accuracy to Poe’s idea, although again, I’m not advocating for particular rules. There are always wonderful exceptions, but generally speaking a short story likely doesn’t hold together all that well if it ventures too far beyond its primary focus.
For Poe, and probably also for devotees of the short story form, the short story’s concision and singular focus give the form an artistic advantage over longer forms, such as the novel. Readers can read a complete short story in one sitting, but readers more likely must come and go from the novel, breaking the unified impression. For Poe, that meant that novels could not benefit from what he referred to as totality. Novels generally extend beyond the focused selection of short stories. Whereas the short story generally operates by limiting, selecting, and focusing, we can generalize that the novel functions by developing and expanding the narrative elements—more developed characters, sub-plots, scenes, backstory, and so on.
The long story/novella, however, has a unique ability to maintain focused, singular intensity while more fully developing and expanding the story. So the long story/novella’s length enables writers to focus primarily upon a single narrative component (much like the short story) but to also expand the development of the narrative so that it achieves the wider implications and overall wholeness of the novel.
In general, the novella can elaborate beyond the scope of the short story. And, in general, the novella can attain a more unified effect than the novel. One of the primary flexibilities of the novella, as opposed to the short story, is that there is space to develop multiple points of view, multiple characters, and multiple plot-lines, and to develop them in the extended manner often found in the novel. However, the novella remains limited as to the number of points of view, characters, and plot-lines, and the depth of complexity of each perspective established. Whereas the novel can develop multiple points of view in depth, the novella risks losing its unity if it takes too many points of view too far.
Certainly, a well-crafted novel requires its own degree of selectivity and focus. The novella, however, demands a higher degree of selectivity, unity, and focus. In fact, the form generally relies upon such techniques for its narrative method. Likewise, it would be an overgeneralization to suggest that a short story cannot expand to reveal a full experience, a full life, or a full social setting. Yet the novella is capable of doing so to a greater extent.
The typical novella must expand and develop beyond the typical short story and must compress and select more than the typical novel. At once too short (to be a novel) and too long (to be a short story), novellas give readers something amazing: the intensity of the short story AND the expansion of the novel. The novella provides the ideal form for readers and writers who want an intense, concentrated emotional effect but also want a more fully developed story that creates a larger sense of experience.
In order to avoid playing favorites here, and because I love such a range of mystery types, I’ll leave it to readers to think of examples that have grabbed their attention. I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the unique power and effect of those intermediate-length stories. If you’ll forgive the use of a cliché, novellas/long stories are able to give readers the best of both worlds.