How to Write a Novella

James Scott Bell

One of our regular readers, Elizabeth Poole, left a comment on Clare’s Monday post about prequels and sequels. Specifically, Ms. Poole said, “As a writer, it’s been difficult to find information on writing novellas especially. Most articles I read say ‘it’s like a novel, only shorter.’
Hello, Captain Obvious.”

Well, if I may be so bold as to jump into a phone booth (wait, do they have those?) and emerge as Captain Craft––as well as the author of two currently selling novellas––let me take a stab at the subject.

Yes, a novella is obviously shorter than a novel. A rule of thumb puts the novella between 20k and 40k words.

Here are the general guidelines for writing a novella. I say general because, like all writing principles, they are subject to change. But ONLY if you have a good reason for the exception!

1. One plot

The length of the novella dictates that it have one plot. It’s a too short to support subplots. That doesn’t mean you don’t have plot complications.It’s just that you are doing your dance around one story problem.

2. One POV

It’s almost always best to stick with one point of view. Both of my novellas, Watch Your Back and One More Lie, are written in first person POV. That’s because you want, in the short space you have, to create as intimate a relationship between the Lead character and the reader as possible.

As indicated earlier, more than one POV is acceptable if you have a reason for including it. And that reason is NOT so you can fill more pages.

A modern master of the novella is, of course, Stephen King. A look at his collection, Different Seasons, reveals three novellas written in first person POV. The exception is Apt Pupil, which is about an ex-Nazi’s influence over a thirteen-year-old boy. The story thus has a reason for shifting between these two points of view. However, I note that Apt Pupil is the longest of these, and I actually suspect it’s over 40k words, making it a short novel.

3. One central question

There is one story question per novella, usually in the form: Will X get Y?

In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, the question is, will the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne survive in God-awful Shawshank prison?

In The Old Man and the Sea: Will the old fisherman, Santiago, land the big fish?

A Christmas Carol: Will Ebenezer Scrooge get redemption?

4. One style and tone

There are novels that crack the style barrier in various ways, but a novella should stick to one tone, one style throughout.

In the old pulp days, novellas were common and usually written in the hard boiled style.

My two novellas are done in the confessional style of James M. Cain––the narrator looking back at his past sins, detailing the consequences of same, with a twist ending.

Romance would have a different tone. Ditto paranormal. Whatever the genre, keep it consistent.

The Benefits of the Novella

Digital publishing has brought novellas back into favor. There are some story ideas that don’t merit 90k words, but may be just right for 30k. The suspense story is particularly apt for this form. One of the great masters, Cornell Woolrich, practically made his career on novellas of suspense.

An indie-publishing writer can charge 99¢ – $2.99 for novellas. They can obviously be turned out more quickly than a full length novel.

Some Suggestions for Writing the Novella

1. Make sure your premise is rock solid

You don’t want to travel down the road of a flabby idea, only to find out after 15k words that it isn’t working. Come up with a premise that creates the greatest possible stress for the Lead character. For example, One More Lie is about a man accused of murdering his mistress. He’s innocent of the crime, but guilty of the adultery. A bit of stress, I’d say.

2. Write in the heat of passion

Novellas are great for the NaNoWriMos among us. Getting the story down quickly releases that inner creativity we long for. And there won’t be the need for as much revision as in a novel, which has subplot complications to deal with.

3. Use white space to designate scene changes

Instead of chapters, the novella usually employs white space between scenes. Some writers do break up a novella into sections designated by numbers. That’s a matter of style. Just don’t say “Chapter 1” etc. It’s not necessary and interrupts what should be the flow.

4. Keep asking, How can it get worse?

Whether your novella is about the inner life of a character (as in The Old Man and the Sea)or the outer life of the plot (as in Double Indemnity) turn up the heat on the character as much as you can.

Think of the novella as a coil that gets tighter and tighter, until you release it at the end.

Some Famous Novellas

The Pearl,John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

The Body, Stephen King

Double Indemnity, James M. Cain

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Phantom Lady, William Irish (aka Cornell Woolrich)

So what do you readers thing of the novella form? Any favorites?

And you writers out there, have you tackled the novella? Or at least danced with it?

23 thoughts on “How to Write a Novella

  1. This is about as clear and concise a primer as I’ve seen on writing the novella. Thanks.

    I’d definitely like to try it, if I can ever train my brain to think of something besides long complicated plots that wouldn’t fit that word length.

    Short fiction is just one of the reasons I’m glad for the digital age of books.

    I haven’t read The Pearl in a long long time. Think I need to go dig that one up again.

  2. I am actually working on one right now which should come in at about 30k words. My shortest novel, MIDNIGHT SUN which just came out this week is about 61k words. I am excited to see if I can make a full story in half that and still come in with all the attributes you mention Jim.

  3. I think it’s a smart business move.

    People are short on time.

    Attention spans have shortened thanks to technology coming at us full-speed in the form of screens these days.

    All great points on writing the novella. Thanks for the Sunday post, Mr. Bell.

  4. Great post, Jim. Love your points. I haven’t tried the novella length yet. Your range on word count is spot on. Harpercollins authors (who write ebook novellas for them) are being told 25-28,000-ish words for that house. I would agree that books over 40,000 words might be better suited as a novel. Some Young Adult book publishers have guideline submissions that define novel length as 45,000-70,000-ish.

    I’ve also enjoyed the resurgence of the short story anthology. A favorite one for me was KISSING IN MANHATTAN, a group of short stories about residents in one building in NYC. From light to darkly poignant, these stories were linked by the place all the characters lived. I’ve never forgotten this book. I might have to reread it.

    Thanks, Jim.

  5. Yay for Captain Craft! This just made my day!

    Your advice, as usual, is excellent. You always manage to make light bulbs go off in my head.

    I’ve been reading novellas (downloaded One More Lie last night) and dissecting them to see what made them stand out from novels. As you mention in your post, Stephan King seems to be a modern master of novellas between Different Seasons and Full Dark, No Stars. Science fiction is also quite rife with novellas, but I hadn’t thought about the hard-boiled novellas, so thanks for the other suggestions.

    You especially bring up an excellent point about the premise. I have an idea for a superhero series with separate yet connected storylines, but this would be difficult to pull off in a novel format for many reasons. When my friend suggested writing novellas, it fit perfectly. Trouble was, there wasn’t a lot of concrete info on writing one.

    Until now. I am printing this post out on hardcopy and taping it on my wall. Thanks!

    BK: I tend towards long, complex plot ideas as well, but I thought it would be an excellent challenge and a great way to hone my craft.

  6. Oh this is fun, Jim. Now that I’ve finished book 3 of my series (can you believe it!?) I’d love to practice writing a novella from first person pov. I’ve wanted to see if I could write in first person and get a feel for it. This might be the perfect timing and opportunity to experiment.

  7. Jim, I have three books in my Key West Nocturnes series, each of which weigh in at about 50,000 words. One of them started as a finished first draft at 37,000 words, but I fleshed it out here and there to 49,007 without adding any subplots or additional characters.

    I would guess that these books technically qualify as novellas, although I refer to them as novels. I put in the requisite time, each one feels like a full-fledged novel and does not feel rushed, even at 50,000 words. They ARE spare, because that’s how I write, but in each case the story is there.

    So to me, they’re novels.

  8. I was actually asked to write a “novella” (although, judging ny word count, they really wanted a short story) by my publisher. They wanted something that would tie into my next release, something they could release for free in advance of the pub date to help with promotion; this is becoming an increasingly common marketing tool. So I wrote No Escape, which told the story of a minor character in the main novel whose fate remained somewhat of a mystery. It was a fun exercise, in the end. If anyone is curious, you can find it here:

  9. Thank you, Jim, for this post. I’ve had the very same question, so thank you to Elizabeth Poole for bringing it up!

    I don’t yet have a published work, and the novella is attractive, because it seems a bit more manageable than a full-length novel with subplots. Your points make a lot of sense, and are helpful, as usual.

    One follow-up question, though: do your 13 Signpost Scenes still apply?

    I hope you had a great seminar in Nashville, and I see you’re coming to Houston in October. Very exciting!

  10. Thanks Jim. Very helpful! I haven’t really tried writing a fully fledged novella. It appeals really more as an add on to my full length novels as I’m more of a novelist at heart (in other words, long winded:)!)

  11. Thanks for the great comments, all. I just flew in from Nashville, and boy are my arms tired.

    Mike, I’d put your 50ks in the novel category. Very short, very lean, but if they work, they work.

    Diane, interesting though…those 13 signpost scenes were developed for true novel-length structure, and some of them are for creating novel-length complexity. The novella feels more streamlined, so maybe not as much breathing room. Though some of the scene ideas could be put to use.

    To me the novella feels more like a long story than a short novel.

  12. Thanks for writing this article. I never considered novellas before, but that may be the best form for some of my smaller story ideas (too short for a novel, way too long for a short story). Captain obvious, indeed. 🙂

  13. I write Screenplays but, this particular story I came up with wouldn’t work in Screenplay form, so I asked one of my Novel writing friends for some advice and she suggested Novella form.

    So now that I know how they should be written I’ll be working on it. Hopefully it turns out well…wish me luck.

  14. This is indeed the most pointed bulletin on writing a novella I have found. I was merely searching for length suggestions; but you brought much more to the table. Thank you Captain Craft- now could you refer me to the location of said telephone booth?

  15. I have been trying to write a novel, but have been feeling intimidated because of the length of most novels that I have read. So I decided to attempt a novella and this post has been the most helpful when it comes to writing a novella. Thanks so much for writing it!

  16. Thank you so much for this excellent post. I am planning a novella for later this year. It’ll be my first attempt, so this little post is like gold.

    Thanks so much for sharing 🙂

  17. An oldie, but a goodie. Thanks for posting this. I’m contemplating a novelette (I usually write novels) and this is a great primer. Thanks.

Comments are closed.