Learning how to write a novella is excellent preparation for writing your first novel. It enables you to work out characters and themes more extensively than a short story does. Writing a novella gives you helpful scaffolding for an expanded and more detailed book or series. Read on for a definition of the novella and 6 essential tips for writing one:
Defining the novella
The novella is a work of fiction that is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. The acclaimed author Ian McEwan describes the novella as ‘the perfect form of prose fiction’. McEwan suggests that the average length for a novella is ‘something… between twenty and forthy thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.’
Writer’s Relief extends the upper word count limit of a novella, saying ‘The exact word count is not set in stone: 30, 000 to 60, 000 words may be an appropriate length.’ Whichever word count range you take as your guide, there are several important ways in which novellas differ from standard-length novels. These give rise to several crucial tips:
1. ‘The architecture of the novella’: Structure your novella expertly
As McEwan says in his piece for the New Yorker, ‘the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures’. The author describes how many novels feel as though they could have done with a good edit and feel longer than they should have been. The length of the novella demands that you cut away all excess fat from your story to leave something lean and appetizing.
When you plot a novella, think about all the things a lower word count demands. Typically, a novella (compared to a novel) is likely to have:
- Fewer characters
- Fewer changes in setting
- A clear central idea that is ‘always exerting its gravitational pull’ (McEwan)
This third point is perhaps the most crucial for planning your novella’s structure: How will you make sure that the central idea is in focus at all times, without subplots making your book feel like a mish-mash of ideas?
For an example, consider Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novella, Fahrenheit 451. At 46, 118 words, it is comparatively short. But Bradbury packs in important social commentary. Set in a future American society where books are outlawed and are burned if found, the story carries this strong central idea (the danger of state-based censorship) to a gripping, conflict-laden end. Without giving spoilers, Bradbury divides his novella into three sections, ‘The Hearth and the Salamander’, ‘The Sieve and the Sand’ and ‘Burning Bright’.
The first establishes the central idea (the book-destroying society in which Bradbury’s protagonist Guy Montag lives) as well as basic relationships between Guy and his wife and Guy and a teenage girl who lives next door. The section ends on Guy’s revelation of a secret and the resulting situation of suspense.
The second section of the book broadens the cast of characters, introducing new pivotal actors in the story. Guy’s growing resistance to the status quo becomes more apparent. Similarly to the first section of the book, the second ends with an element of surprise or revelation that leaves the protagonist in a suspenseful situation.
The third section of the book sees intensifiying conflict as Guy has to make drastic choices. Tension rises to a height before the story is resolved.
As the three-act structure of Bradbury’s novella shows, a well-structured novella typically:
- Sets up questions and tensions for the first two thirds of the story that will be answered and resolved in the final third
- Introduces additional characters who drive the plot forwards in the middle
- Constantly gravitates towards the outcome of its central idea
Given the shorter space you have to establish central themes and sketch in characters, it’s important to be concise with character description and development:
2: Use characters economically
Historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall allows family trees and scores of complex relationships, but novellas require a trimmer cast. Because you have less space to digress and expand, you need to focus on developing a handful of characters well.
The central cast of Fahrenheit 451 consists of just 10 people, including the protagonist Guy Montag (the book burner who becomes conflicted about the society in which he lives), Guy’s neighbour Clarisse McClellan (who is a catalyst to his growing unease about book-burning), Guy’s wife Mildred (who complicates and adds conflict to Guy’s development) and several others, including Guy’s boss Captain Beatty and two of Guy’s co-workers.
Each character is not given extensive backstory, and some (the protagonist Guy, for example) are developed more than others. Characters serve essential functions. They might act as catalysts for the protagonist to change his outlook and life (the neighbour Clarisse) or as challengers who thwart his new goals.
If you’re writing a novella, use character economically by:
- Identifying the crucial contribution each character will make to furthering the story and developing the central theme (will the character help or hinder your protagonist?) If your character went to Sacred Hearts Convent School, for example, ask yourself ‘does this backstory contribute enough to developing my central idea?’
- Give each character just enough dialogue and description to further the plot and create a vivid sense of your novella’s world
- Try to write character descriptions using a set number of characters (letters, punctuation and spaces) as a preliminary exercise before writing their scenes.
Work out each character’s role as you would an actor’s in a play: Like the cast of a play, they have limited lines to get across their motivations and their purpose to the story.
Once you have outlined your story’s central characters, pay attention to your central conflict:
3: Give your novella a single central conflict
Like a novel, a novella should have conflict and tension (not necessarily physical – it can be a character’s internal struggle). Unlike a novel, in a novella there is usually one single conflict rather than multiple subplots that complicate the story. In Fahrenheit 451, the central conflict is Guy’s growing resistance to the culture of book-burning. In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the central conflict is the protagonist’s inner struggle caused by his obsession with a teenage boy (an obsession he restrains himself from acting upon) that develops while he vacations in Venice.
The central conflict or question of your novella should pull all the elements of the story into its orbit. Ideally, your novella’s central conflict should:
- Be satisfyingly complex yet allow resolution within 40, 000 to 60, 000 words
- Be interesting enough to sustain an entire story with no subplots
- Rise in stakes and anticipation over the first two thirds of the novella and be resolved in the third
4: Increase your novella’s pace
As writers for the MMU Novella Award point out, a novel can afford to develop in stops and starts and take the scenic route to the final climax. Not so for the novella. Because you have a primary story or character arc, it’s important to keep things building to a final climax, be it a blistering conflict or an inner development for your protagonist.
Pruning away subplots as suggested is one important approach to increasing your novella’s pace. One of the reasons writing a novella is great preparation for writing a novel is that it’s almost like outlining. Writing shorter sentences with the kind of concision you’d use in an outline will help you build better pace.
5: How to write a novella: Focus on the unities
Because you’re writing a story that lies somewhere between a novel and short story in length, remember to keep it simple. Barbara Monajem, writing for Romance University, recommends having ‘three unities’ in your novel:
- Unity of time: The story should take place in a limited frame of time
- Unity of place: The story should take place in one location [more than one location is fine too: Just make sure you don’t take up too much space explaining how your characters get from A to B]
- Unity of action: In Monajem’s words, ‘the conflict should be simple and easily resolved.’
You might be forced to observe the unities by word count limitations. It’s also a good idea to focus on these three aspects because one vivid setting, one taut time-frame or one compelling conflict is far better than several weak ones.
6: Edit with ruthless precision
Remember what Ian McEwan said about longer novels often feeling like they could have used a decent edit? This is all the more important when writing a novella. In a shorter work, it is easier for readers to remember parts that bore in places or are overly wordy. Besides editing to get your novella within the necessary word count limit, edit to make sure that every page contributes to the whole. At every page turn ask yourself, ‘How does this scene fit into my central idea? What reason have I given the reader to turn to the next page?’
Although sticking within a 20, 000 to 60, 000 word count can be challenging, learning how to write a novella will improve your craft. Get started on outlining and honing your central idea with Now Novel.