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There are many forms of storytelling that captivate readers of all ages and backgrounds. Authors have used these forms to say different things and target specific audiences. Each one has its own characteristics and purposes. Beyond the novel, there are four forms that often confuse writers: novellas, novelettes, short stories, and flash fiction. They are all short-form stories. 

So what makes them distinct from each other? Let’s take a look.

Flash fiction

A flash fiction story has a limited word count – typically under 1,500 words. 

Also called microfiction, nanofiction, or a short short story, flash fiction stories maintain a complete plot even with their small word counts. The shortest forms of flash fiction can be broken down into six or even five word stories – the most famous of which is the six word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Due to its brevity, flash fiction often focuses on a single scene or interaction while hinting at a larger story. Even in those, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If a piece doesn’t feel complete by the end, it isn’t true flash fiction. Though there isn’t much time to fill in backstory details, the prose itself should hint at details that allow readers to fill in the gaps on their own. 

Flash fiction usually adds an element of surprise – most often found at the ending. The goal of surprise here is to guide the reader into thinking about what the story meant. 

Short stories

A short story is a piece of writing that can be read within one sitting. They are typically between 1,000 and 7,500 words, but some reach up to 20,000 words. Authors writing short stories try to capture a mood with a small cast or set of circumstances covering a single narrative experience. While maintaining the bare minimum, short stories tend to include an exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. They may start in the middle of the action in order to have time to cover everything. 

Check out “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a famous short story by Edgar Allen Poe.

As a form of writing, short stories are a good medium to experiment with point of view, imagery, foreshadowing, metaphor, tone, and themes. In the past, they often conveyed a moral lesson, but modern short stories include ambiguous endings that allow the reader to find their own interpretations. 

Novelettes

Novelettes are works of fiction between 7,500 and 19,000 words long. They are also called “long short stories” or “short novellas.” Historically, “novelette” referred to romantic or sentimental stories. Modern novelettes branch into multiple genres, like sci-fi, drama, and historical fiction. Compared to short stories, they focus more on character development, worldbuilding, and plot development. A longer word count allows authors to detail character motivations, build multiple arcs or plots, and explore themes.

An example of a novelette would be “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Novellas

A novella is often any work of prose between 20,000 and 50,000 words long. They are characterized by having single central conflict, fast pacing, and limited time and setting. Novellas typically have a focused purpose – writers are very clear about what they want to say through their work. 

While they are known for having plot twists, novellas also make up a realm of experimentation and innovation within fiction, testing popular ways of thinking and bringing to light concepts in new ways. An example of a novella that does this is “Animal Farm” by George Orwell.

While the lines between these four forms may sometimes blur, understanding the key differences between flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, and novellas can help both writers and readers appreciate the unique qualities each form offers. From the brevity and impact of flash fiction to the depth and expansiveness of novellas, these distinct forms provide a diverse range of reading experiences that continue to shape and enrich the world of literature.