Reading SF: Short Fiction for Beginners

When is a short story not a “short story”?

Surely everything that isn’t a novel is a short story, isn’t it? What’s all this novella and novelette business, then? And what the heck’s a short-short story? For newcomers to reading SF, the terminology and categorization of short fiction can be a bit confusing.

Well, technically you can take the “if it isn’t a novel, it’s a short story” approach if you want to (many readers really couldn’t care less, to be honest). But for those who like to know about such things, the situation is a bit more complicated, and interesting.

Take, for example, a story of 38,500 words: it’s a bit too short to be a novel, but it’s also way, way too long to refer to it as a short story. It’s actually a condensed novel, in other words what we’ve come to refer to as a novella.

Even a story of, say, 15,000 words – not exactly a short story, is it? But it’s way too short to be a novel, even a condensed novel. So another category covers this type of short fiction that occupies the “middle ground”. It’s called a novelette.

There is also a peculiar type of short story at the extreme lower end of the scale – barely a page or two (sub-1,500 words) – that is known as the short-short story.

This type of categorization is used by the two dominant SF&F awards, the Hugo Awards and the Nebula Awards (other awards may use slightly different categorisations), and is the one most commonly accepted among mainstream SF advocates. They are categorized as follows, in order from shortest to longest:

  • Short-Short Story (Under 1,500 words)
  • Short Story (1,500 – 7,500 words)
  • Novelette (7,500 – 17,500 words)
  • Novella (17,500 – 40,000 words)
  • Novel (40,000 words and above)

Each category nurtures stories of a different type and tone, and each category has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. And this also means that authors can specialize in writing short fiction of specific lengths, fine-tuning and perfecting the qualities of that particular category.

The short-short has always been my least favourite of all the categories. It’s far too short for a serious story, there tends to be zero character development, and the whole thing is comprised of a very short one-trick plot that hinges around a twist ending, punchline or corny pun. I know that this is the whole point of a short-short, but it’s not really my thing at all. I don’t think that I’ve ever actually really liked a single short-short in all my years of reading SF, despite being momentarily amused by a few of them.

The short story, especially approaching the upper limits of its length, gives a lot more room for manoeuvre, and, even better, the novelette occupies a very satisfactory middle-ground between the short story and novella. In general, I believe (and this is strictly my opinion) that the longer a piece of short fiction is, the better it (potentially) is. The author has more room to breathe, to develop complex, interesting plots and flesh out real, 3D characters, rather than the one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs often found in much shorter stories. And so I would argue that the novella, and, to a lesser extent, the novelette, are much better categories in which to write really good SF stories, not withstanding the many classics that have graced the short story form.

Historically, quite a large ratio of the greatest “classic” SF short fiction has been novellas. Personally, the novella has always been my favourite. I regard it as the “perfect length” for writing an SF story. Not too long, and not too short. It cuts out all the excess, unnecessary padding and fluff that afflicts most novels, while leaving all the good stuff, and plenty of room for a satisfying, complex plot and character development.

In my opinion, a good novella is the most perfect, and most entertaining form of SF story you can read.

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