It’s Not Just About Length

By request (and not as part of the launch discussion), I am republishing this section of my editorial from the February issue of Locus to open up the discussion….

From Locus Issue #577:

I have a bone to pick with the way people count the length of works, and more generally with the way stories are written…. There are actual differences between the short story, novelette, or novella, more than word count alone: short stories generally focus on a single character and event, often within the Aristotelian unity of place, time, and action (i.e. plot). Novelettes generally have two characters, and novellas show the interactions between four characters (although one of them could be the world or the setting). As works get longer, they have a correspondingly larger story arc, greater thematic development, and the characters change more. Subplots generally don’t enter until the full novel length. This used to be the way the categories were understood, and can usually be accomplished best if we redefine short stories to be up to 10,000 words, novelettes 10,000 to 20,000; and novellas 20,000 to 60,000. Since the advent of the word processor, everything is just getting more bloated. I rarely see a story of any length that I don’t want to take a red pencil to.

— C.N. Brown

4 thoughts on “It’s Not Just About Length

  • February 9, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Dividing short fiction into categories by length is a rather arbitrary way of doing it, but if the Locus list starts defining the categories in a different way to everyone else, it makes them rather less useful as a guide to what I should read and nominate for awards.

    I’m also confused as to what exactly Locus is using as the new definitions – have you redefined all your fiction categories based on the above wordcounts, or do you arbitrarily assign a category based on what sort of story you think it is? Given that you are classing “Catherine Drewe” as a novelette when it is under 7,000 words it would seem to be the latter, and I’m not sure replacing an arbitrary but understandable system with a subjective editorial judgement is an improvement.

  • February 9, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    The above post is a proposal, not a statement of how Locus is classifying short fiction — Locus does word counts for the categories the same way as always. There is nothing arbitrary about the way categories are assigned for the reading list.

    “Catherine Drewe” was classified as a novelette because we use the 6-character word count from the published version. This is used for all of the short fiction on the list — an explanation of how that word count standard works is on the SFWA site at, if you aren’t familiar with it.

  • February 10, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    I agree that length isn’t the only thing that defines these categories, but I also don’t think it matters enough to go through the trouble of changing them.

    Personally, I like to think that there are really only two categories: novels and short stories. When a novel happens to be short and minimalistic, I just call it a short novel (or a novella). When a short story happens to be long and overwritten, I just call it a long story (or a novelette). Word count doesn’t really come into play. I have read novelettes that are longer than novellas. I have also read novellas as short as short stories. Part of me thinks it’s about the amount of story involved, not the amount of words used to convey that story. The other part thinks word counts are just easier and more efficient.

  • February 12, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Well, I’ve always thought the use of word count is a simple way of breaking up narrative into arbitrary categories. One of the main reasons word counts work is the freedom it allows the writer with those limits.

    I do not understand the post, I guess. First, Brown has a problem with word counts and bloated writing yet perscribes different word count numbers as a solution. What is that? Is this an example of that ‘magical thinking’ I’ve been hearing so much about? I think Brown’s real problem here is “the way” short fiction is being written; it is not being written his way.

    Brown’s “way” of writing a ‘proper’ piece of short fiction sounds like it was spewed from a how to write seminar at the University of Hack. With respect to plot, characterization, and the other elements of fiction, THERE ARE NO DEFINABLE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SHORT STORY, NOVELETTE, AND NOVELLA. One simply has to read broadly to understand that there are no rules, just what works. These categories should not and cannot be defined by the amount of characters they contain or, for that matter, by how much characters change.

    I hope these narrow and reductive ideas about how short fiction should be written are designed to create discussion and not unintentionally idiotic. But if the statements regarding the ‘formula’ of what constitutes a short story, novelette, or novella are sincere and even a little serious, then I think Mr. Brown should step back and reconsider his ideas about fiction as an art form (if indeed he does, because to me it sounds like fiction-by-numbers [pun intended]).


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