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Even for English speakers, the lines between novel, novella, and short story are not clear-cut. Wikipedia has 17,500 to 40,000 words as a novella, and 7,500–17,500 as a novelette; anything shorter is a short story. (It may be a generational thing, but novelette is less familiar to me.)

In Japanese dictionaries, I see both 短編小説 and 中編小説 for novella. At first glance, 中編小説 would be the better choice; but is this word used in everyday speech? And indeed, for short story, is 短編小説 more common than ショートストーリー?.

Also, I'm not familiar enough with Japanese literature and culture to know how those traditions affect terminology for historically Western texts. Are 一夕話 and コント used also for short story?

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中編小説 would be understood, but for most people, it does not mean any specific length. In ordinary speech, there is mostly just a distinction between 小説 and 短編小説. That should be why novella is translated as 短編小説, meaning what is shorter than full novels.

There is no standard for the lengths of novels. According to web searches (site 1, site 2), the following seems common.

  • 長編: 300> sheets
  • 中編: 100-300 sheets
  • 短編: 10-100 sheets,

where 'sheet' refers to a special paper for compositions that contains 400 characters per sheet.

Anything shorter would be called ショートショート, 掌編小説 etc.


一夕話 is not current, and コント means exclusively a type of comic performance (short comic drama).

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I would say a rule of thumb is:

  • 長編/長篇 - a complete story that can be published stand-alone as a book or a series of books
  • 短編/短篇 - a story that is (way) too short to fill one book; they are published as a collection (短編集/短篇集)
  • 中編/中篇 - anything in between (perhaps because of this ambiguity this term might be less commonly used, but it definitely exists in the vocabulary of regular people); something like 2-4 of them can fill one book when published, maybe one can even be published as a very thin book

One thing to note about those terms is that 小説 in Japanese is not exactly "novel" (in the sense of the English term as I understand), but it encompasses over all lengths of written fictions including epic novels and short stories. When you mean "novel", you probably want to say 長編小説, or 長編 when it's obvious that you are talking about written fictions. (長編 in general can also refer to manga, films and other creative works of story-telling that are considered long, by the way.)

小説 as a concept is primarily applied works made in the meiji period and after, when it comes to Japanese-language works. I think this is because works like 竹取物語 are told in a way very different from the modern idea of novels. (The Tale of Genji might be an exception and I know some experts call it one of the earliest novels, though.) Many of the early Meiji authors studied and/or translated foreign works.

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