From sprawling 200,000-word epics to concise microfiction under 100 words, fiction has a wide range. But somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lies novellas.
Novellas are the perfect compromise when you want to write an in-depth story but don’t want to commit to a full-blown novel. It’s like a long short story or a short book. It’s often a quick read, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a light read. And that also doesn’t mean it’s a quick write. Writing good fiction of any length is time-consuming. And crafting an engaging novella is no small feat. It takes precision and a ruthless edit. But if you’re willing to rise to the challenge of concise storytelling, let’s go.
In this guide, we’re sharing tips on how to write a mesmeric story that your readers will consume in one sitting.
What is a Novella?
A novella is a work of fiction that sits comfortably between a short story and a full-length novel in terms of length. Typically ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 words, novellas offer readers a more substantial narrative than a short story but a quicker read than a novel.
You may think this format is recent, but historically, the novella has been a beloved format for many authors that you know. Famous examples of novellas include Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol,” Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," just to name a few. These works have left an indelible mark on our soul because they are intensely emotional and shed light on the human condition.
Apart from length, one of the defining characteristics of a novella is its focus. Because they must economize words, novellas often revolve around a single event, idea, or character arc. They delve deep into their chosen theme and give readers a concise but profound narrative experience. Every word must be purposeful. You can’t waste a single one.
You can find novellas in all fiction genres, from romance to science fiction. But this format can also allow authors to explore experimental ideas that don’t fit a particular genre.
With the rise of digital publishing, there’s been a resurgence in novella popularity in recent years. Ebook readers, in particular, are often looking for shorter reads that they can digest on a daily commute. Novellas provide a quick treat. Novellas capture the depth and intricacy of novels but deliver the story in a condensed, focused format.
What’s the Difference Between a Novella and a Novel?
Let’s explore the key differences between novellas and novels.
Typically, a novella ranges from 20,000 to 50,000 words. This word count allows for a meatier narrative than a short story but goes significantly faster than a full-length novel. This length means readers can often finish a novella in one or two sittings.
On the other hand, a novel generally has a word count of over 50,000 words. Many mainstream novels average between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Some genres, like epic fantasy or historical fiction, may contain more than 200,000 words.
Narrative Scope and Depth
By necessity, novellas have a focused scope. Given the word count restrictions, novellas often concentrate on one event or character’s development arc. There's typically a central theme or conflict. There usually isn’t space to diverge into subplots or follow the development of multiple characters. Novellas also tend to introduce the primary struggle immediately. Remember, there’s no time to waste.
Novels have the luxury of space to explore multiple characters, subplots, themes, and settings. This freedom often leads to a more complex, layered, and nuanced narrative structure.
Pacing is different in novels, too. While novellas must maintain a relatively consistent pace due to their length, novels can ebb and flow. There's room for slower, reflective moments and fast-paced action sequences.
Complete novels allow storytellers to build elaborate worlds, carve intricate characters, and explore every aspect of society. Unlike novellas, these books can hold multiple themes.
While both novellas and novels offer readers immersive experiences, they do so in different ways. The novella's strength lies in its focused narrative and ability to deliver a profound story concisely. In contrast, novels provide readers with a more expansive journey that can explore intricate worlds, characters, and conflicts.
Pros of Writing a Novella
Both formats have unique advantages and cater to different reading preferences and moments. So why write a novella over a novel?
Often Quicker to Write
A novella is typically half the size of a novel. Given its shorter length than a full-length novel, you can often write a novella in less time. Because you’re focusing on one event, idea, or character arc, you’ll likely be able to write the first draft much quicker than a novel. However, the revision process may be the same.
Immediate Reader Engagement
With limited word count, novellas often introduce the central conflict or theme early on. You can hook your readers more quickly with a novella than a novel. The quicker you catch a reader, the greater the chance that the reader will stick around until the end.
Easier for Reader Commitment
You can read a novella in one or two sittings. This fact makes novellas appealing to readers who don’t have the time (or attention span) for longer works.
Allows for Experimental Ideas
Novellas give you the perfect format to explore experimental narratives, unique structures, or niche topics in a short and punchy way. You can test the waters with a novella, and then, if you like the results, you can expand into a full-length novel or series of novellas in the future.
Writing a novella can be a good way for new authors to enter the publishing market or gather reader feedback without committing to a more extended project.
Ideal for Modern Audiences
Today’s readers often seek content they can consume during short breaks or commutes. Novellas are also perfect for serialized content. You can keep your fanbase engaged by releasing multiple interconnected novellas in a series.
Cons of Writing a Novella
While there are a lot of good reasons to write a novella, here are some drawbacks to consider:
Limited Narrative Scope
Novellas are shorter. The restricted word count means less room for multiple subplots, extensive character arcs, or detailed world-building.
High Potential for Low Development
Without intentional storytelling, you may inadvertently rush the plot or leave key characters underdeveloped. This risk is why you must make every word count.
Traditional Publishing Challenges
If you’re hoping to publish traditionally, selling your novella to a big publisher can be difficult. Some traditional publishers and agents are less inclined to take on novellas because they can be harder to market and sell as physical books compared to full-length novels. However, novellas are easier to sell on digital marketplaces like Amazon.
While writing a novella has pros and cons, the benefits outweigh the risks, especially if you’re willing to self-publish.
Developing the Protagonist in a Novella
In the limited space of a novella, where every word counts, the protagonist's development is pivotal. A novella’s strength often lies in its ability to convey emotions, conflicts, and themes within its limited scope. You need a strong, well-defined, and relatable protagonist to achieve this. Readers should be able to understand and empathize with the protagonist quickly. The protagonist is the reader's primary guide through the story, and if this central figure is weak or vague, the entire narrative will fall apart.
Here’s how to create a compelling protagonist in your novella:
Begin with a Strong Internal or External Conflict
Conflict is the engine of any story, and in a novella, it's crucial to establish conflict early on. Whether the conflict is an internal struggle of morality, desire, or an external clash with antagonistic forces, such as individuals, society, or nature, you must tie this conflict to the protagonist. Doing so not only drives the narrative forward but also immediately engages readers.
Develop a Clear Character Arc
The character arc must be clear and concise, whether it shows growth, transformation, or even a tragic downfall. Readers should see a definite change in the protagonist from the beginning to the end. This journey makes the character more human and the story more impactful.
Make the Protagonist’s Goals Obvious
Your reader should always know why the protagonist made a specific choice. The protagonist's goals, whether noble, selfish, or desperate, should be clear. These motivations justify the character’s actions and create a deeper connection between the reader and the character.
Avoid Overcrowding the Narrative
While supporting characters are essential to any story, a novella doesn't offer the luxury of developing multiple primary characters and their separate arcs. The protagonist's journey should remain central. Any character introduced should serve an essential purpose, whether to support or contrast the protagonist’s arc or directly impact the central conflict.
While the compressed nature of a novella presents challenges, it also offers unique storytelling opportunities. You can write a short tale that leaves a long-lasting impression by focusing on a compelling protagonist whose journey you mark with clear motivations, conflicts, and growth.
Best Practices to Follow When Writing Your First Novella
Here are some best practices to keep in mind when writing your novella:
Novellas benefit from planning. Without a plan, you can lose the tight focus required to tell an engaging story in less than 50,000 words from start to end.
Before you begin writing, outline your story. Outlining doesn't mean you need to map out every detail, but you do need to have a skeletal structure. Ensure that your plot, character arcs, and thematic elements fit the novella format without making the story feel rushed or incomplete.
Focus the Narrative
In novellas, brevity is vital. A scattered narrative can leave readers feeling unsatisfied. Choose a single theme, event, or character to concentrate on. Every subplot or secondary character should complement this central element.
While novels can afford leisurely build-ups, novellas demand a steady pace. Be mindful of how your story progresses. You shouldn’t necessarily pack every page with action, but avoid lengthy expositions that don't directly serve your main narrative. Ensure a balance between setting the scene, building tension, and delivering climactic moments.
Fluff and filler can detract from the narrative's impact in shorter works. Once your first draft is complete, go back and refine it. Prioritize quality over quantity. Remove redundant scenes, refine dialogue, and ensure every word adds value to your story.
It’s important to get external feedback on all writing. An external perspective can provide invaluable insights and highlight areas of improvement you might have missed. Seek out the help of professional editing services to get accurate assistance that will benefit the novella you’re working on currently and improve your writing as a whole.
We’re here to help. Check out our editing services here.
Writing a novella requires a delicate balance of precision and depth. It might be short, but its impact can be mighty. Use the tools from this guide to start writing your first novella. And remember, we’re here to help you once you’re ready. Happy writing!