Of course, it may be academic to search for the correct label. Labels aren’t that important are they? Except that they are; and when you have two labels that stand close to each other – two labels that draw a nice distinction, to give a word its earlier meaning – the difference becomes even more important. A novel is a different thing to a novella. The latter isn’t simply a shortened version of the former. If it were, we wouldn’t need the term at all, we could simply say, ‘a short novel’.
The novella might, in fact, be something not at all connected with the novel; something more like a short story – but longer.
The distinction may be something to do with the type of story it is. Sometimes, because there are sub-plots and side-plots and little groups of characters that get on with their own stories alongside the main one, I think that A Penny Spitfire might be (at 50,000 words) a short novel. Set in a single location and revolving around a single incident, with quite a distinct turning point (the ‘wendepunkt’ of a traditional novella) it might equally be a novella.
I can live with the uncertainty, and I’m sure you can! But there are similar uncertainties, it seems to me, about how we might describe different types of short story. They must overlap with both novels and with novellas. Certainly I’ve seen references to short stories of up to 35,000 words. I can imagine a novel of that length – and I’ve seen novella competitions with max word-counts of 22,000 words.
Are there ways of describing pieces of fiction other than with these rather vague labels? Would it be helpful if there were? In poetry we have a whole series of formal forms: sonnet; pantoum; ballad; villanelle et al! (You don’t see many ‘al’s these days). These labels are useful – giving us a shape to aim for when we try writing one; giving us a shape to diverge from when we want to write in echo of one, or to avoid entirely! Would a similar series of labels help us to think about, and talk about, and write short stories? Curiously H.G.Wells described his ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ as a ‘pantoum’. The pantoum is a very definite poetic form, and Well’s story (expanded in his own screenplay as a movie starring Roland Young) has some elements of its circularity, but does the label fit the prose form? Does it help us read it? Approach and understand it?
There are of course, the genres. Mostly for longer fiction, but also in films, we categorise by content, rather than form: RomCom, Chickflic, noir, horror, shlock-horror and so on. They give us a clue to what stories are about, rather than what they are like? The original genres were broader brushstrokes: comic; tragic. And those two are still fundamentally useful, separately or as a pair. There were distinctions of style, implying content too: epic; lyric.
The short story, or tale, as A.E.Coppard insisted on calling it, is of ancient provencance. Fables, myths, folk and fairy tales, and anecdotes are all fore-runners of the short story. All, to our modern way of thinking, are lesser forms: lesser than the short story, less than the novel. That lessness, I suspect, is because they were not originally written down. The short story is lifted into respectability by the fact that it is. Simply, that’s because you can’t write one down unless you’ve been taught to write, and you can’t read one until you’ve been taught to read.
But I still haven’t answered my own question: that of how we might label short stories, written or oral, or aural, to get a clearer idea of what different types of them there are, or might be. I think they might be distinguished by their forms, like poems, rather than by their content, as are novels, and that means looking at what the possible forms might be. The basic elements of short story forms I think of as ‘endings’, ‘ambience’, and ‘narrator’. Each of these three has several types – mirrors, hoops, and circles, I have suggested, among others, for the endings. The ambience could be one of a number of moods, and of moods that either deepen, lessen, or morph into other moods. The narrators will be one of those first, second or third persons, but will also be of ‘them’ or ‘us’ in relation to the characters in the story, and the listeners to it, or readers of it.
These elements could be said to belong to longer stories too, to novels and novellas, and that’s true, yet, one of the three, the ‘endings’ is far more important to short story than to any other fiction form, so that when push comes to shove, I would look to that one alone as being the key element by which to categorise different types of short story.
So, I might look for a Chekhovian ending; or a Biercian one; or a Maupassantian, as well as for my hoops and mirrors etc.
What would it mean for the short story if we could talk, and think about it in this way? What does it mean for poetry that we can think of it like that? Sonnet? Pantoum? Villanelle? Free-Verse? It seems to me that what you think you are doing will influence the way you are doing it, and what sort of story you think you ar e writing will affect the writing. Having some idea of what sort of stories there are to write should help that process. Maybe the question is more use than the answer, or rather, the possible answers might be of most use to those who formulate them, in light of which idea, I’ll leave the answers to you! Seasonal Greeting from BHDandMe.