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Types of Fiction

Fiction refers to literary works sourced from imagination as opposed to real-world accounts. Because this is an incredibly broad definition, there are many other ways to classify and categorize fiction. One of the most common is to analyze the form in which that fictional content appears. Depending on the formal constraints, fiction can appear in the shape of prose, poetry, or drama. Prose fiction is by far the most common of the three. While prose fiction is generally categorized in bookstores by genre in order to help readers more easily find items they might desire—science fiction, mystery, thriller, etc—it can also be categorized by form. Prose fiction forms are typically categorized by length, resulting in the following three categories: short stories, novellas, and novels.

Example of a Fiction Story

Most popular contemporary literature is fiction. Some common genres operate outside the boundaries of fiction, such as biographies, but being forced to relay only information reflective of the real world places strict confines on an author. Fiction allows the author’s full creativity to be put on display and accounts for an incredibly wide breadth of work. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels all count as works of fiction despite their different genres, disparate forms, and the centuries between them. Regardless of their differences, each focuses on creative works of the imagination or, simply put, things that aren’t true.

Short Stories

Short stories are short works of narrative prose. Because of their length, short stories generally focus less on plot or significant character development and more on generating a certain atmosphere or mood. Edgar Allan Poe defined short stories as having a “unity of effect” in which every aspect of the story works together to generate a certain feeling within the reader. Because short stories are so efficient with their space, they are often published in magazines or journals.

Short Story Length

Edgar Allan Poe regarded the length of a short story as its greatest advantage over other forms. Short stories are long enough to leave “an intense and enduring impression” but short enough to be read in one sitting. As such, short stories are long enough to convey one overall feeling but short enough to be convenient and temporary, making the feeling all the sharper. While the specific length of a short story can vary, as a general rule, most short stories are under 10,000 words.

Edgar Allan Poe, a famous literary critic and short story author.

While Poe was known best for his poetry, he was one of the first authors to push short stories as an effective literary form.

Examples of Short Stories

Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is a perfect example of a work of short narrative prose that attempts to build a specific mood. The plot and character development are simple—the entirety of the story consists of a single scene in which a man attempts to coerce a young woman out of her house and into his car. While the story starts on a light-hearted note, it quickly shifts towards something darker as paranoia sets in. Even though little happens in terms of plot, the story nevertheless leaves a remarkable impact on the reader.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” attempts to cultivate a similar sense of dread amongst the reader. It starts out innocuous, describing a village tradition (the titular lottery) and all of the innocent hubbub and excitement that goes along with it. As the story continues, an edge arises in the description of the proceedings. With the conclusion of the lottery, it becomes painfully clear what “winning” entails: being stoned to death as a ritual to bring a good harvest.


Novellas bridge the space between short stories and novels. The word “novella” comes from the Italian word novella, which translates as “new.” Novellas still lack the space for extensive plot and character development, but the extra length gives them enough time to explore a concept as opposed to establishing a specific mood. Novellas tend to have simplistic plots and basic character development, unlike a short story which lacks lack of both. While placing length restrictions on a genre remains contentious, novellas tend to range from 15,000 words to 40,000 words.

Examples of Novellas

Because novellas lend themselves so well to exploring concepts, experimental science fiction has embraced the novella form. Ted Chiang is renowned for his series of short science fiction novellas, such as The Story of Your Life. In this novella, a series of aliens who perceive all of time simultaneously come to earth, and, in the process of trying to communicate with them, a linguist begins to see time similarly. Ted Chiang uses this knowledge of the future to have characters grapple with free will.

David Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon functions in a similar vein. The main character is a mentally-stunted individual who undergoes a surgical procedure which accelerates his brain growth, ultimately leaving him smarter than anyone else around him. Keyes uses this concept and the man’s newfound intelligence to interrogate the age-old adage “ignorance is bliss.”


Novels are the most common type of prose fiction in the modern day. Novels are far longer than either short stories or novellas. As a rule of thumb, anything over 40,000 words is classified as a novel, though some novels stretch far beyond that limit (such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace at 587,287 words). Novels tend to have winding plots and complicated characters that change over the course of the story. Because novels have so much space in which to work, they are capable of slow, cautious, and subtle movement. Novels have a series of traits associated with them, some of which are listed below:

  • Character Development: A novelistic character is expected to display a complicated psychology that reacts to surrounding events. A character in a novel will end the story a different individual than they were at the beginning.
  • Foreshadowing: Because novels can be so lengthy, the author must feed the reader hints of what is to come. Foreshadowing is usually used to build tension or suspense, but it also provides a sense of structure to the work by ensuring that plot events don’t seem to occur unexpectedly and at random.
  • Chapters: While there are many ways to arrange a novel, they are typically arranged into chapters. Each chapter serves as a semi-contained segment of a plot. Oftentimes chapters change with points of view, meaning that different chapters will be narrated from the perspective of multiple characters. This use of multiple viewpoints allows for a varied and multifaceted look at the issues faced by the characters in the novel.
  • Three-Act Structure: Originally taken from drama and the theater, the three-act play creates a pacing blueprint for novels. The first act is spent acquainting the readers with the characters and setting and providing the initial catalyst that sets the plot into motion. The second act consists of a series of complications that the characters must overcome, slowly building the intensity of the story. The third act serves as the culmination of that intensity, beginning with the climax of the story and ending with the aftereffects of the characters’ actions.

Examples of Novels

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment possesses all of the archetypal novelistic traits. Coming in at 208,016 words, it far surpasses the average novel in length. The novel follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a poor man who lives in Saint Petersburg. He plots to murder a wealthy pawnbroker and take her money to liberate himself from his poverty. His murder is successful very early on in the book—the rest of the plot consists of his intense guilt, efforts to grapple with the implication of his crime, and attempts to evade suspicion and conviction by the authorities. The novel focuses closely on the main character and his development, sketching a vivid and complicated psychology that shifts as the book progresses.

George Elliot’s Middlemarch is another classic example of a novel that extends to a total of 310,593 words. The story follows the struggles of a large cast of characters that live in the titular near-rural town of Middlemarch. Each of these characters experience a series of challenges that are oftentimes caused by other characters, leading to a series of intertwining plots that combine together.

Novella vs. Novel

The line between novels and novellas isn’t always clear-cut. There are long novellas and short novels. The following table includes the general differences between them to help identify whether a work is a novel or novella.

Novella Novel
15,000-40,000 words in length 40,000+ words
Few complex characters Many complex characters
Direct, utilitarian plot Many side plots and complications
Typically a single, focused theme Many intertwining themes

Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol has a total of 28,944 words. Despite being a novella in length, the story rotates entirely around the development and changes in the main character Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge starts the novel with a passionate disdain for Christmas and charity. Over the course of the story, he encounters multiple challenges to his miserly nature, presented to him by supernatural beings that grant him visions. Because the story rotates so closely around the main character, whose mental complexity and development is undeniable, A Christmas Carol has a great deal in common with a novel. However, the narrative is undeniably straightforward, lacking any of the side plots associated with novels. Though A Christmas Carol straddles the line between the two, it has more in common with a novella than a novel.

Charles Dickens, famous Victorian novelist.

Dickens wrote many different types of fiction, but his novellas and novels are the most well-recognized.

Short Story vs. Novel

Short stories and novels are immediately distinguishable by their comparative length. While novellas and novels may blur lines, short stories are much shorter than a novel. Take “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe that contains about 2093 words. When compared to a shorter novel of 30,000 to 40,000 words, the difference is clear. When compared to something akin to the 138,087 words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the distinction becomes obvious.

Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities weaves a complicated narrative involving many different fleshed-out characters, as one would expect from earlier novel examples. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is much simpler: the story revolves around a single mentally-disturbed individual struggling with his own murder of an individual he supposedly loved. While on the surface this sounds like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment mentioned above, the difference is a matter of tone and complexity. The story is simple and without subplots. Poe spends much of the short story developing a dark and uncertain ambience that is intensified by the sheer insanity and consequent unreliability of the narrator.

The basic differences between a short story and a novella can be summarized as follows:

Novels are typically above 40,000 words in length, whereas short stories are under 10,000 words. Novels have complicated characters and extensive plots with many challenges, whereas short stories are more direct. Short stories focus more on generating a certain ambience which, according to Edgar Allan Poe, allows them to affect the reader in a different manner.

Lesson Summary

While literature is generally organized by genre to help readers locate works they’d be interested in reading, prose fiction can also be separated into three different forms: novels, novellas, and short stories.

  • Novels are the longest of the three, generally above 40,000 words. They consequently take the longest to read, and boast complicated characters and plots. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is an example of a novel.
  • Novellas are shorter than novels, typically between 15,000 and 40,000 words. Their characters can still be complicated, but they have fewer characters and more straightforward plots than novels. David Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is an example of a novella.
  • Short stories are the shortest form of the three. Because of their length, they are generally found in magazines and journals. Short stories have very little space for characters and plots—as a result, they usually focus on generating a certain tone. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is an example of a short story.

While length is the classic way to differentiate each of these forms, it should be noted that the implicit word counts are rough estimates. There are long novellas and short novels, meaning that the complexity of the work itself is more important to identifying the form of a literary work.

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