What is a Novella?
Writing a novella is a specialist art. Too long to be a short story or a novelette, and too short to be a full novel, a novella can give an insight into a particular character, situation, or plot line. A story might deserve its own attention, but doesn’t quite fit into any of the other categories.
A novella is usually between 20,000 and 50,000 words and, aside from the lower word count, you can differentiate a novella from its cousin, the novel, in a few different ways. There are usually:
- Fewer characters;
- Fewer changes in setting;
- A clear central idea that is going to draw you in.
I say usually because there will always be people who try and cram as much into a novella as they do into a novel, and that’s fatal; a novella isn’t just a short novel, it’s a piece of fiction in its own right, with a focus, pitch, and direction all of its own. We shouldn’t judge a novella on a novel’s standards and try to replicate the structure of one in another; we can focus far more on a particular situation or person in a shorter piece of work, and should try to enjoy that for its own sake.
One thing that won’t work in a novella is having too many characters; it won’t allow you to develop their personalities, because you’ll be sharing too little space amongst too many people. If you instead use a few key characters, and really explore their personalities, then you can really maximise their development.
The same goes for settings, of course; waxing lyrical about settings for the first five pages means you lose the opportunity to advance the plot; either that, or you push the story more towards a novel, and if you have enough of a plot and story to create a novel, then do that. A novella is a novella; treat it as something discrete, rather than just a number cruncher for a longer story.
Make sure you’re plotting the story, either as you go or in advance. With such a tight word count, every word really does have to matter. This is the case in any type of story, of course, but a novella needs to be constrained within a tighter word limit—and so novella writers need to know where to strip away anything unnecessary. Sub-plots, excessive character description, and impassioned paragraphs on the ethics of a person’s fur coat won’t keep the plot on target and within limit.
Think of this in a different way: What’s the point of the story? What do you want to achieve by the end of the story, and how are you going to get to a strong, powerful ending via a strong, powerful plot? Certainly don’t tail off towards the end; the story needs to end just as dynamically as it started. That’s not to say that battle scenes are all the rage, but the ending needs to pack a punch—emotionally as much as anything else.
Ideally, the range of time and location should be tight; you don’t need a novella carrying forward over a period of six months or six years. Days or weeks should be more than sufficient. Location is tied into this; if you’re keeping the time scale tight, then that defines how far you can travel.
Most importantly, accept that the above suggestions are just that. They are certainly not compulsions or orders, merely some thoughts on how novellas can be the best possible structures—and if they are not useful, then ignore them and go with what the storyline needs. But if people give you advice about its quality, then—at the very least—listen.
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© 2018 Matthew Munson
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.