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What is the Difference Between a Novel and a Story?

Updated on July 6, 2011

According to Dictionary.com, the word 'novel' as applied to fiction means, "a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes," but defines the word, "story" as, "a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel." The definition of 'novel' is the first definition at Dictionary.com, the definition of 'story' is the second definition, but better explains the primary difference: length.

Widely quoted literary agent, Nathan Bransford. says that many agents automatically reject novels greater than 150,000 words. In my own interactions with publishers and agents (years ago, when I still had delusions of grandeur) I was told that a true novel should have a minimum of 50,000 words. Therefore I deduce that the proper submission length for a first novel should be no less than 50,000 words and no greater than 150,000 words, whereas a story could be any length at all. For example, when my daughter would request a third bedtime story, I would tell her,

"Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, they lived happily ever after, the end."

Actually, to be a real story I think it would have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This seems to only have a beginning and an end.

We see, therefore, that 'story' is the larger term that encompasses all fiction, including narrative poetry and, yes, novels. However, many novels contain more than one if not several separate stories, for example, plot, various sub-plots, incidental anecdotes and such that add richness and complexity to the work. In usage, 'story' usually means a tale about one individual, thing, or event. A novel can encompass many characters and events.

Short stories are a modern form of story, typically ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 words. Short stories are revered for their economy of words and their maximization of word usage. If you are going to get from point A to point B in 1,500 words and still deliver a powerful message, every word choice is going to be crucial.

As a writer, you demand a certain commitment from a reader embarking on reading your 100,000-word work of fiction. If you do your job creating proper suspension of disbelief in the first place, the commitment of the reader may make the reader more tolerant of some of the risks you may take while trying to maintain the continuity of the dream you have created for them. In a short story, the reader has less to lose if they put it down, so as a writer you may have to work harder to maintain their allegiance.

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    • profile image

      sarah 

      6 years ago

      good work..keep it up

    • profile image

      Nicole 

      6 years ago

      Thank you!

    • profile image

      ritu 

      7 years ago

      thank you sir keep up the good work

    • VictorS. profile image

      VictorS. 

      7 years ago from Mobile, AL

      Great hub and discussion of this much debated issue. Poe said that a short story was something that could be read in one sitting, while a novel was not. I can't remember if it was E.M. Forester or not who originally placed the cutoff at 50,000 words. It seems like everyone agrees that a short story is short and a novel is long and elaborate, but the cutoff line seems to be a little arbitrary. 1,500 to 5,000 words does seem like a good range for the typical short story. Thank you for this.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      8 years ago from United States

      Oh, probably never

    • Gendarme profile image

      Gendarme 

      8 years ago from Jamaica

      Just out of curiosity, has Dictionary.com been updated lately? Or better yet, how current is the information given by Dictionary.com?

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Yes, that's about right, although the upper limit is more flexible than the lower, so they tell me.

    • profile image

      Ryan 

      9 years ago

      Ok so i am guessing that if i do a novel i got to do more then 50k but i got to do less then 150k.Right

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      I'd love to read your short stories, Amanda! Thank you

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      9 years ago from UK

      A novel requires way too much commitment to my way of thinking, yet some people seem able to churn them out. I think writing short stories would suit my butterfly brain better on the whole! Thanks for making the distinction Tom, and good luck with your current novel.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Wow.

      I think it was Robert Parker I heard say that he types one page every day, no more, no less, and NEVER edits.

      Thank you Deltachord

    • Deltachord profile image

      Deltachord 

      9 years ago from United States

      Interesting Hub with good basic information. One way to be prolific is to do what Isaac Asimov did...he said he kept his butt to the chair 10 hours a day and typed his stories and novels of science fiction with the two finger method.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      That's true Sheena, but word usage is a skill you will acquire, so don't worry.

      Cris, then you've got Harry Potter.

      How exciting, Iphigenia! Please treat us to some of your stuff sometime.

      BP, it sounds intimate, but vaguely unsanitary. Although it would be nice to know what is going on inside me mind!

    • blondepoet profile image

      blondepoet 

      9 years ago from australia

      Only you Tom could think of something as deep as this. I would love to be a fly inside your mind.Can I?

    • profile image

      Iphigenia 

      9 years ago

      Interesting question - and a really useful answer.  I wish you well in your novel writing. I tried it and could not cope with all the narrative and descriptions. However, many editors and agents told me  that I can write great dialogue and so I switched to screenplay writing - which I love. Still not sold any yet - almost sold one last year for 10,000 euros, but it fell through at the last minute.

    • sheenarobins profile image

      sheenarobins 

      9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Cris, I just have the collection of what you're trying to tell,Tom.

      One For The Money

      Two For The Show

      Three To Get Deadly

      Four To Score

      --------- and then

      Lean Mean Thirteen.

      You better start now.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 

      9 years ago

      Aha Chris, you are? Hehe...didn't know I was lurking around like a nemesis did you?

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 

      9 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      But what if the story goes on and on even after the novel finishes? LOL I'm just messing with you Tom! Thanks for delineating the lines that separate. Now I'm off to my first novel, er, story! :D

    • sheenarobins profile image

      sheenarobins 

      9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      LOL. Tom, I think and I'm planning to go back to school and get a formal study of writing a book. I wasn't lucky enough to get that on the 1st college degree. Mom, insist on the science of computers. I've always wanted Mass Communications.

      It is frustrating sometimes when you have lots of ideas and you cannot express it coz your mind goes topsy turvy thinking about word usage. LOL

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Where everyone else gets them of course, darling. The dictionary.

    • sheenarobins profile image

      sheenarobins 

      9 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Damn, I was thinking of writing a novel. Now I'm having second thoughts. Where am I going to get the 50, 000 ENGLISH words?

      LOL

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      All you need, Feline, is a couple of characters you really like and you'll find plenty to write about. They won't leave you alone!

      My own novel length works have run on the thin side: 50,000 to 75,000 words. The novel I'm working on now seems to be shaping up more toward the 100K mark.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 

      9 years ago

      I don't think I'll ever reach 1,500 words leave alone 150,000!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Actually my test readers used my first two novels for sleep aids. I still can' t decide if it was a compliment or an insult!

    • Paper Moon profile image

      Paper Moon 

      9 years ago from In the clouds

      Thanks for the story tom. I had to put it down in the middle to comment. May come back to it one day. (just kidding) :)

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      "Hub" is also good, Patricia :0)

    • Patricia Costanzo profile image

      Patricia Costanzo 

      9 years ago from Behind the Redwood Curtain

      The word novel is intimidating to me. Now "short story," I can handle. " Poem," even better.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      That's excellent. I love that excitement one feels as the project takes shape and gains momentum. Please keep us all posted! HubPages is a great place to preview an excerpt...

    • trooper22 profile image

      trooper22 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      Well Said Tom.  I am working on a Noval at the moment and exceeded 150k by leaps and bounds.  Fortunately, I have read this post and received like advice from a published author at a workshop I recently attended.  I am now creating a multi-part with the first as my complete noval with a Big OL' fish hook at the end of it. )

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      I wish you were my agent, Frieda!

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 

      9 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      Very nice info! Well put. Great short story. You didn't lose me even though I had little to lose by quitting half way. You held me in there. Nice form. Excellent characters (I like quirky dictionary readers as main characters). Definite anthology material here. Thumbs up.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Ya it really sounds like a lot o' words, don't it? LOL

      Thank you Hawkesdream

    • Hawkesdream profile image

      Hawkesdream 

      9 years ago from Cornwall

      Think I'll stick with the hubs, I think I would never be able to count all those words, lol only joking, good info Tom.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks, Ms. Sin Devine.

      Hi Candie. I should actually have mentioned that works in that range (20,000 - 50,000 words) are often called a novella. Three novellas are often combined to make a saleable book.

    • Candie V profile image

      Candie V 

      9 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

      Can I keep my comment down to 25,000 words and still be a novel-ette? Kinda like the old "harlequin romances" books. Not much on plot, but cute covers.. Well done, I learnt a thing or three!

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 

      9 years ago from Cape Town

      Cool, Tom!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      That's great, Shreekrishna! Thank you!

    • profile image

      shreekrishna 

      9 years ago

      thanks tom ,

      i learned a new thing from this.

      wish you to your success.

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