The Black Sheep of the Short Form—the Novelette

The two previous Words of Wisdom dealt with story lengths shorter than the novel: the short story and the novella. Today’s post, though not a Words of Wisdom one, will continue with a look at the “black sheep” of the short form, the novelette. While the novelette is recognized in various science fiction awards as a discrete length, this is not true for mystery and thriller, hence the “black sheep” in this post’s title.

Length-wise, short stories are usually defined as running from 2000-7500 words, while the novella is often defined as running from 20,000-40,000 words in length. Short stories are the typical length in many online magazines, and in story anthologies. Story anthologies can include longer lengths, of course, ranging into the novella length. But, in general, there’s a divide between the two forms.

The novelette lives in that divide, running between 7500 words and 20,000.

Masterclass discusses what distinguishes a novelette from a novella:

In terms of storytelling ambition, novelettes tend to split the difference between novellas and shorter forms like short stories. Novelettes tend to have a greater focus on character development, worldbuilding, and plotting than short stories. However, the stories are generally more concise and focused than a novella-length work, as the word count is often too restrictive to tell a long story. [The full post can be found here.]

Our very own James Scott Bell has written a number of novelettes, including the Force of Habit series and Trouble is My Business, each six novelettes long. In his March 3, 2013 KZB post, Jim touches on the novelette and its value in helping you train as a writer:

Training: A novelette is short form (about 15k words) and I’ve been studying that form as the e-book revolution has taken off. All writers now should be producing short form work in addition to full length novels. He goes on to discuss other aspects of his novelette—the post is well worth reading in it’s entirety.

In the Science Fiction field a novelette is defined as running from 7500 to 17,500 words.

The late science fiction grand master James Gunn felt that the novelette was the perfect length for science fiction: long enough to allow the writer to fully explore an idea but not so long as to become caught up in a plot that might be so complex and lengthy as to overshadow the exploration of that idea:

“Although there are some great SF novels, there are far more great SF novelettes, which embody the substance of a novel without taking on its burden to solve the problem it lays out.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Jim Gunn about this when I was at the University of Kansas for a two-week novel writing workshop in 2013. As a long time anthologist, editor and writer he was passionate that this was the case.

I feel the same might be true for mystery, especially the locked room variety. The novelette length is long enough to delve into a clever mystery and explore it without having to go to even the extent of plotting and number of characters a novella does. At the same time, there’s more room for characterization and world building then in a true short story.

In mystery or thriller, neither the novelette or the novella are mentioned in awards categories. The Edgar Awards short story category covers stories that run from 1,000 to 22,000 words. The International Thriller Writer Awards simply says that to be considered a short story it must be less than 35,000 words.


Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense film, The Birds, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name. In the novelette, the story is centered on Nat Hocken, a disabled WW2 veteran who works for a local farmer. Set on the windswept Cornish coast during a bleak autumn, Nat soon finds evidence of birds acting strangely, pecking at his bedroom window, and when he opens it, attacking him. At the same time, the autumn has turned a bitter, dry cold. Soon Nat notices gargantuan flocks of gulls riding the waves at sea, seemingly biding their time. What follows is a building horror as Nat realizes his family, and his community is under threat, and he takes steps to warn others and protect his family.

The POV is kept on Nat, and the focus on coordinated actions of the birds. The novelette takes place over three days. Radio broadcasts let Nat and the reader both know that the bird attacks are widespread, throughout the U.K., and perhaps the world, but we stay with Nat the whole time. The arc of the novelette is in Nat and his family’s evolving situation, as he becomes aware of the threat, and attempts to save his family and warn others.

I’ve published three novelettes, “Siloed,” which appeared in the Street Spells urban fantasy anthology, “Running Tangent,” co-written with K.C. Ball, which was published in the July 2015 issue of Perihelion Science Fiction, and the cozy mystery novelette, “Farewell, My Cookie,” which I published on BookFunnel last August. All three were in the range of 10-11,000 words. Both “Siloed” and “Farewell, My Cookie,” take place over the course of a single evening, while “Running Tangent” occurs over a longer span of time.  I find novelette length ideal for briskly paced stories that took place over just a few hours.

For me, the novelette’s allowing more space for characterization, exploring an idea or a world and more room for plot than a short story while being more concise than a novella makes it a form worth considering.

How about you?

  1. Have you read novelettes? If so, do you have any favorites?
  2. Have you written novelettes?
  3. Do you think the novelette length worth writing for mystery, especially locked room or puzzle stories?

23 thoughts on “The Black Sheep of the Short Form—the Novelette

  1. Ⓠ Have you read novelettes? If so, do you have any favorites?
    Ⓐ Yes, many, but I can’t recall any specific instances.
    Ⓠ Have you written novelettes?
    Ⓐ In 2008, I wrote a pastiche titled, “Sherlock Holmes & the Twelve Apostles.” It is 8200 words long. Since I wrote it, the original Sherlockian copyrights have expired. I should submit it, but I’m not sure where.
    Ⓠ Do you think the novelette length worth writing for mystery, especially locked room or puzzle stories?
    Ⓐ Maybe. But I prefer short plays to other short fiction. A short play is only a little more work than a short story.

    • Thanks for weighing in, JG. Your Sherlockian novelette sounds like a good fit for a Holmes-themed anthology and worth keeping an eye out for an open call for such an anthology.

      • I have 9 or 10 similar short pieces, including:
        The Poodle of the Pesterfields,
        Watson and the Dartmoor Denizen,
        The Adventure of the Skeptical Sibling,
        The Adventure of the Perilous Porcelain,
        Watson and the Ptemple of Ptuch.

  2. Nice rundown, Dale (and thanks for the mention). I love this form. It works nicely for a collection of episodes around a series character. You have room for characterization and an unfolding plot, and the satisfaction of finishing up in days or weeks.

    • Thanks, Jim. I really enjoyed Trouble Is My Business, while Force of Habit is on my to-read list. Publishing a linked novelette series in a collection is a great idea.

  3. 1. I do read novelettes. One that sticks in my head is The Fall of the House of Usher.
    2. Yes, I have written novelettes. The Hay Bale, for example.
    3. Sure, novelettes can work for mysteries, and locked room mysteries in particular. It’s the number of main characters and their plot threads that demand a longer story, not the genre.

    • “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a terrific example, Priscilla. Excellent point about the number of main characters and their plot threads which demand a longer story. Mary Robinette Kowal even has a formula for this, with each character and location adding 500-1000 words to your story, which she averages to 750 words. Total these up and multiple by the number of plot threads. It can be a handy diagnostic. She discussed it a little while back in an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast.

  4. I’ve never really thought about length classifications, but I imagine I’ve read novelettes in places like EQMM without them being earmarked as such.

    Have I written any? Yes. “Seeing Red” contains three (although I consider them short stories simply because readers probably don’t know what a novelette is).
    When I wrote for the Wild Rose Press, they had different lengths, but called them all short stories. Some of the ones in my “Second Chance Rose” are really novelettes.

    I think the length of a story should be as long as it needs to be.

    • Good points, Terry. Science fiction definitely emphasizes “length classifications” more than other genres, with the various awards often having a novelette category.

  5. I have read some short fiction (it gives me a headache thinking about what name it should have–short story, novelette, etc.) but I don’t tend to lean toward work that is shorter than novel length. You’d think that would’ve changed over the years as our attention spans grow shorter, but I still prefer reading (and writing) full novel length work.

    But I do agree that shorter fiction is a good training ground & something I need to tackle. I don’t at this point anticipate submitting to magazines, for example, but then we have to consider reader magnets and I can see myself doing an anthology at some point down the road.

  6. Excellent, Dale. Great coverage of the novelette.

    I’ve written several “short stories” for anthologies that were written more in the style of a novelette than a short story. We must have had a limit of <7500 words, because all my stories pushed close to 7500.

    Yes, I think the novelette could work for mysteries, or any genre for that matter where the plot stays closely focused on one character.

    You have me thinking of other uses for the novelette.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  7. Great summation and analysis, Dale. While reading, I kept remembering classic TV series like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as AHMM and EQMM.

    “Mary Robinette Kowal even has a formula for this, with each character and location adding 500-1000 words to your story, which she averages to 750 words. Total these up and multiple by the number of plot threads. It can be a handy diagnostic.” That’s really helpful. .

    Have an idea rattling around about my series character that might work in a short story or novelette. Thanks for this discussion, Dale.

    • You’re welcome, Debbie. You’re right, “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Present’s” are basically telling novelette-length stories.

      I think the novelette length is well-suited for a tie-in story featuring a series character. Have fun!

  8. Clear and concise description of the novelette, Dale. Well done! I’ve written two, which I’ve called short stories. At 10K+ words apiece, they would fall under the classification of novelette. I stand corrected. Thanks, my friend.

    Hope you have a nice weekend!

    • You’re so welcome, Sue! As Terry pointed out, for many readers, they are all short stories, but as writers, I think it’s helpful to be aware of the differences between the lengths.

      Hope you also have a wonderful weekend!

  9. I cut my writing teeth on short stories, then moved on to full length novels. I’ve also written five or six novelettes but didn’t realize that’s what they were. Most are in the mystery form, so I really should be thinking about putting them together and giving them away as a newsletter magnet!
    I enjoy reading the shorter forms at night…they are something I can start and finish without staying up until 2 a.m. Great post! And be sure to read Force of Habit! I loved it.

  10. Excellent post, Dale. I’ve read a few novelettes, but didn’t realize that was the category.

    I haven’t written anything in that word count range, but you’ve got me thinking that I could construct a good mystery in that range. Thanks!

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