How to Write a Novella

Ever since I published my first novella, my love of the form has only grown. I’ve also learned a thing or two about how to write a novella, how they compare to novels, and why they’re such a manageable, versatile choice for self-publishing writers. If you’ve always dreamt of writing a novel but have never succeeded in finishing one, perhaps you have yet to consider its slimmer, far more attractive older sibling: the novella.

How to Write a Novella | If you're struggling with finishing your novel, why not turn it into a novella?

A Suitably Brief History of the Novella

Novellas (despite what their name might suggest) are nothing new. In fact, it might surprise you to find out that novellas predate novels by at least a century. The OED cites the first use of “novelle” in reference to the short tales that make up Boccaccio’s Decameron. While The Decameron isn’t a novella in the modern sense, it’s interesting to note that the practice of bringing together shorter pieces to form a larger, unified work is still common practice.

Although novels have become something of a publishing standard – it seems everyone has one in them – novellas, which are easier to construct, more versatile, and suited to many different styles of storytelling, haven’t received as much recognition. Let’s change that!

Types of Novellas

For our purposes, we can group novellas into 3 broad categories:

1. The Literary Novella

The novella is the goldilocks form for literary experimentation because it allows for more scope than the short story while still retaining its intensity. The length is perfect for dense language that would be harder to sustain in a novel, for emphasising character psychology over narrative concerns, and for exploring difficult questions without overworking.

Some famous literary novellas include: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Chess by Stefan Zweig, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

2. The Inspirational Novella

The shorter novella form has also been used by authors who want to tell inspirational stories that appeal to all ages. The novella’s length makes it more approachable for younger readers, and also makes it easier for the writer to deliver pithy, more immediate advice. The enduring popularity of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho, and The Prophet by Khalil Gibran are testament to how well the novella form is suited for this task.

3. The Genre Novella

Novellas are also a popular choice for genre fiction, and I imagine that if you’re reading this post, genre novellas are what you’re interested in writing. As an example, you can read my steampunk novella, The Floral Underworld, in the Coterie library, or choose any of the winners of the Hugo, Nebula or World Fantasy Awards. The novella form has been embraced by the science fiction and fantasy communities, as these awards suggest. Because electronic publishing takes the cost of physical printing out of the equation, it’s now easier for novellas to hold their own and be just as profitable as longer novels.

How long is a novella?

Estimates vary, of course, but a novella is usually anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000 words long. However, novels for younger audiences often run shorter, so 50,000 words may be nearer to a full-length novel in certain markets. Some awards (such as the Hugo and Nebula Awards) also have their own word count criteria for novellas, as well as an additional category between short stories and novellas termed, “novelettes”.

Novellas vs. Novels

Novellas are sometimes compared to films, and I think the comparison is an apt one. If we assume that 15,000 words takes approximately an hour to read, then a 30,000-word novella can be read in about as much time as it takes to watch a film. Hence, a novella usually covers a similar number of scenes and events. A novel is too large a structure to visualise all at once, but films and novellas are more manageable. Ian McEwan makes the point that this is also appealing to readers.

Despite their contracted size, novellas can tell the exact same story as a novel.  Novels include a lot of extra detail that isn’t strictly necessary to the narrative, but that work to build a deeper relationship with the reader (by drawing them in, convincing them to invest more time, attention, interest, etc.). However, we can’t ignore the fact that the novella also needs to build this relationship, and it has a tougher job because it has less time and space within which to do so.

Time, pacing & repetition

A novella gives the reader far less time to immerse themselves in the story world, so it needs to make up for this lack with vivid, detailed storytelling.

The novella form doesn’t give the writer opportunity to go off on tangents that only serve a single purpose, such as character development or worldbuilding. For example, in a novel, a character might visit their mentor at a community centre several times throughout the course of the story. Each time, the reader might pick up new clues about the personalities of the two characters, and understand the significance of the location for them. The reader will also develop a relationship with the characters and the world simply by virtue of having invested so much time in them.

In a novella, on the other hand, there might not be time to revisit a location even once. Repetitions can easily become tedious because they don’t have the length of a novel to space them out in terms of reading time. Any repetition must be vital to the story and to the story structure, as it is in A Christmas Carol.

The Fix-Up

Many writers begin by writing novellas or short stories that they later merge together into a novel in what’s termed a “fix-up”. For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and Agatha Christie’s The Big Four (and more) all grew out of shorter fiction. This is a great option if you’d like to launch a book quickly, whether to start building your audience, or to test the viability of a genre or market.

Should you write a novella?

A novella is perfect for you if…

  1. You tend to write succinctly.
  2. You want to test the viability of a particular subgenre or market without investing too much time.
  3. You want to transition from writing short stories to writing longer works.
  4. You want to start a new series quickly.
  5. You’re having trouble finishing your novel.
  6. You want to have the option of doing a “fix-up” novel later.
  7. You want to experiment with form or genre.
  8. You want to write a story for both adults and children.
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Turn Your Unfinished Novel into a Novella

If you’re struggling with finishing your novel (and believe me, I’ve been there), why not try turning it into a novella? Novellas are much easier to manage, and if you’re planning on self-publishing anyway, then they’re just as marketable.

Here’s how you can quickly determine if your novel will work as a novella…

  1. Make sure a novella is the right choice for you (see previous section).
  2. Go through your (unfinished) manuscript and summarise the scenes you’ve already written. You might want to use this novel spreadsheet to help you.
  3. Use the Scene Charger worksheet in the One Page Novel Workbook (which you can download free in the Coterie library) to find the scenes that score highest. Pay particular attention to scenes that score (relatively) high on story development.
  4. Go through the scenes that fall below your pass score and make a list of all of the information that they present. The aim is to delete these scenes and integrate the information into your stronger scenes as you write.
  5. If this process hasn’t shortened your manuscript enough, then find any diversions, tangents or subplots that aren’t essential to story development, and repeat step 4.
  6. Looking at your outline, does the pace look like it’s suitable for a novella? See my tip below if you aren’t sure. If yes, then you can continue and outline the rest of your story. If no, then perhaps you had best stick to your guns and finish your novel!

Note: Here is an example novella outline to give you an idea.

My #1 Tip for Writing Novellas

My #1 tip for writing a novella is to read a few before you begin. Novellas you’ve read in the past don’t count (unless you re-read them). The reason I recommend this is because it really helps to have the rhythm and pace of a novella in your mind as opposed to the slower, more leisurely pace of a novel. By pace, I don’t mean how much running around your character does; rather, I’m referring to the rate at which you introduce new plot points, and how long you spend on exposition.

You’ll find it much easier to have that sense of the pace of the novella in your mind, than to try to work according to arbitrary word counts.

How to Plot a Novella

How many scenes?

Scene lengths will also tend to be shorter in a novella. If we take 1000 words as a rough estimate for a scene, then a novella of 25,000 words will require only 25 scenes or plot points.

How to create a novella outline

In my course, The One Page Novel, I teach an 8-stage plot formula that I created because I was struggling with finishing my first novella. I think that creating a strong story structure is particularly important for a novella because (as I mentioned earlier) the shorter length makes the structure so much more evident to the reader.

Here is a brief overview of how you might use the One Page Novel plot formula to plot your own novella outline…

The One Page Novel works by plotting out of order, so the first thing we do is decide who our character will be at the end of the story. To do this, we can simply select one or two “states”, such as: wealthy, fearless, loving, sociable, etc.

The next step is to turn the character’s Resolution state into its opposite. This gives us their state at the start of the story, and allows us to create a strong character development arc. For example, a character who’s wealthy at the end of the novella would begin poor, a character who is fearless would start out scared, etc. The Stasis will show the character in their ordinary, everyday life, exhibiting these states.

Next, we find the turning point between the Stasis and the Resolution: this is the stage at which the character realises how they can make the transition from their old ways to their new ones, in order to fulfil their goal or create a new, better goal.

The Trigger is what sets the character off on the story journey. This is through either internal or external motivation, or a combination of both.

The Quest is the stage at which the character gets sucked deeper and deeper into the adventure. They meet new people, visit new places, discover new problems, and take on new responsibilities. Some of the people they meet may be shapeshifters, and they will need to be sorted out from the allies. These allies will form a plan and put it into action. Usually, it won’t be a very good plan but the character will go along with it because it’s the best plan they have.

The Power is the counterpart of the Quest. It acts in reverse and extracts the character from the world of adventure. This is where the character truly understands that they’ve had the power to change into their Resolution state all along. They make the change and fulfil their original or altered Quest goal.

The Bolt is the “bolt from the blue” that derails the (already weak) Quest plan. This could, for example, be the point at which a shapeshifter’s betrayal is discovered, or when the allies realise that they’ve critically misjudged their opposition. It can also take the form of a diversion or delay that takes the character’s focus away from making progress on the Quest.

The Defeat is the moment when all hope is lost. The Quest plan that faltered in the Bolt has now completely fallen apart. The Defeat follows on from the Shift, and often involves an essential sacrifice that the character must make in order to attain their Resolution state.

Once we have a few scene ideas for each stage, we begin writing the novella in story order: Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Bolt, Shift, Defeat, Power, Resolution.

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  • 2-3 scenes that introduce the character, show how they’re struggling in their ordinary life, and set them off on the story journey. (Stasis and Trigger)
  • 10-15 scenes that send the character deeper into the adventure, that introduce them to new people, new places and new problems, and show them making a plan and putting it into action. Make sure to include at least 2 try/fail cycles. (Quest)
  • 2-5 scenes that put a spanner in the works of the Quest plan. (Bolt)
  • 1-3 scenes that show the character understanding how to change from their Stasis state to their Resolution state, and altering the Quest plan accordingly. (Shift)
  • 1-3 scenes that force the character to make the ultimate sacrifice, and lead to everyone (including the read) thinking that there is no more hope of success. (Defeat)
  • 1-3 scenes that show the character finding strength, ability or knowledge within themselves that help them overcome the loss of the Defeat, succeed in fulfilling the Quest plan, and reach their Resolution state. (Power)
  • 1-3 scenes that show the character and their world living in the Resolution state, reaping the benefits of the lessons they’ve learned and teaching others. (Resolution).

You can use the One Page Novel novel spreadsheet or Scrivener template to help you plot and write your novella. As an example, here is the outline for my novella, The Floral Underworld. You might notice that I switched the order of the Bolt and the Shift. This is because it felt more natural for my story. Plot formulas are tools, not rules; use them to experiment!

How to Write a Novella

Once you have your outline, you can write the first draft of your novella very quickly. I frequently write 10,000 words a day, so with a little practice and some diligence, you could finish your draft in a weekend.

HOWEVER, please don’t underestimate the amount of time it will take to redraft, edit, polish and publish a novella. Having a workflow helps, but the truth is that a manuscript of any length presents many problems, each of which must be dealt with both individually and holistically. This involves making many hundreds of decisions, and decisions are mentally wearying. Be ready to see it through no matter what and you’ll be fine, but expect it to be easy and you will be in trouble.

Good luck!