Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Novelette: a suitable form for crime fiction?

Until recently, I hadn’t heard the term “novelette” (or, if I had, it hadn’t stuck in my memory). Mara Purl slots it into the space between a short story (upper limit 7,500 words) and a novella (lower limit 17,000) and other definitions that I’ve seen are similarly length-based, though the suggested word counts are slightly different. I did find an older definition according to which a novelette is generally “romantic” or light, and Purl herself notes that “novelettes are sometimes described as having trivial themes”.

Before I read Purl’s post, I had been thinking of my story “Protected” (which has a word count slightly below 9,500) as a long short story. It’s different from my other short stories in that it has a more involved plot than I’d have attempted in a shorter piece. It’s crime fiction. There’s no murder or body but there are allusions to a criminal trial (for conspiracy to murder) after which the narrator spends several years in witness protection. But that’s a bit of a smokescreen: the crimes that are actually being committed are for the most part less violent than conspiracy to murder.

So, is “novelette” a suitable form for a genre like crime fiction? I don’t think it matters what you call it: terms like short story, novella or novel tend to be applied after the fact to whatever it is that someone has written. As Purl says in her post, we’re seeing at the moment a trend towards shorter forms, including the short story and novella. This is partly because electronic publication (of one kind or another) allows for greater flexibility of form. I myself recently suggested that the short story may benefit from having been freed from the former requirement that it resemble a chapter in a book.

The story I’m working on at the moment, also crime fiction, will probably be affected by the trend towards the smaller form. I went back to it a few months ago after a gap of three or four years, to find that I had 49,000 words towards a first draft of a novel. Reading through it, though, I realized that I really didn’t like the subplot. It would need a lot of work, possibly a rethink from scratch. I’ve started to look at the possibility of excising the subplot in its entirety, along with two characters who might belong in a different story, and turning my planned novel into a novella instead.

In the end, I don’t think I’m going to label “Protected” a novelette. I still prefer to think of it as a long short story. If you’ve got 40 or so minutes to spare, maybe you can see what you think. The story is in five parts, the first of which you’ll find here.