Count your Lucky Length

Often when works of fiction are discussed, word and/or page count comes up. When you see books on a shelf, one of the first things you’ll notice, apart from the author’s name and book title on the spine, is how thick or thin they are compared to each other. Some people like J. R. R. Tolkien enjoy reading long stories. Others prefer shorter works. What is it about length? Does it matter?

Often when you look at a book’s title page, there will often be a subtitle saying “A Novel” or something similar. “A Novella” and “A Novelette” appear to be less common. Instead perhaps you might see “A Short Novel”. Furthermore, when it comes to defining types of writers we have novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter. There are no set terms that I’m aware of for writers of novellas or novelettes. I sometimes feel novel is an umbrella term under which any fictional work longer than a short story can be labeled. Often, it seems word count is what it really comes down to, as I’ve seen so many sets of word count ranges that are used to define these works. Or is it?

In my senior year at St. Mary’s College, I took a high level creative writing class called “The Novella”. Some of the books we read felt like novels or long short stories. We each had to write a novella, and I started writing that story about neglected pets. It fit into a novella word count range. However, my classmates and the professor felt it should be expanded into a novel. I admit before that class, I’d first imagined it as a novel. Perhaps a work of fiction is what the author believes it to be, and subsequently calls it.

Writing for the stage and screen can be more restrictive, though it’s by page count rather than words. Once at a meeting of the MWA Annapolis chapter it was stated a page of a screenplay equals a minute of screen time. Thus an ideal film script should be 100-120 pages. A TV episode script would be 50-60 pages. Plays too it seems have page count limits these days. Audiences I can understand would rather not sit in a theater all day.

Some classic plays and films are long. Hamlet is usually abridged when staged or filmed. The 1996 unabridged film version lasted over four hours. Sometimes I wonder what Hamlet’s stage and screen history would’ve been like had Shakespeare written it as two plays, as he did with Henry IV (which has appeared onscreen only as TV films). I also wonder what the movie Gettysburg would’ve been like had it been a TV miniseries as initially planned.

Charles Dickens’s works were first published as a serial (like novelettes or novellas) before being printed as complete books. The serial versions were cheaper, making his novels available to the masses, whom, with a cliffhanger, would be enticed to buy the next installment. The novels of the Brontë sisters were published in “volumes” – but like Dickens’s books they’re are only published as complete works nowadays. Some people feel novellas and novelettes have difficulty getting published these days, and if they do they are usually combined with similar works.

In the end, it all comes down to the writer. It’s up to the author whether they want to define their work as novels, novellas, novelettes, short novels, or short stories. Length is applied in the public consciousness, but maybe it doesn’t have to. Does length and its description on the title page affect the customers decision to purchase or pass?  What do you think?

Further Reading
  1. Meer, Syed Hunbbel. Differences Between a Short Story, Novelette, Novella, & a Novel.
  2. Playwriting 101. Chapter 1: The Play’s the Thing.
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