Novella Words of Wisdom

I wanted to follow last time’s Words of Wisdom on short fiction with a Words of Wisdom look at the novella. I’ve written several novellas, and have published three of them, and have been hankering to write another. So, it seemed like the perfect follow up to short stories.

It turned out that Steve Hooley did that, after a fashion, not quite two years ago. His own post had an excellent definition and history of the novella, and then listed bullet points from James Scott Bell’s 2012 post on writing the novella, as well as Jordan Dane’s look at the novella in 2016, as well two points from a 2015 Joe Moore post.

After some thought, I decided it would still be worth giving Steve’s, Jim’s and Jordan’s posts the full Words of Wisdom treatment, with excerpts from each for discussion. I hope you will find this return to the novella not too soon. Certainly it’s a perennial favorite of mine.


The word “novella” is the feminine form of “novello,” Italian (masculine) for “new.”

The novella has been described as “a short novel or a long short story.” Its length is listed as 10,000 – 40,000 words (some sources say 20,000 – 50,000 or even 15,000 – 60,000). The novella usually has a single plotline, is focused on one character, and “can be read in a single day.” It may or may not be divided into chapters, and white space is traditionally used to divide sections.

Examples of novellas that used chapters:

  • Animal Farm – George Orwell
  • War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

During its history, the novella has been used in different ways. Let’s see if it is the “load-it-up-with-everything compact utility vehicle” or a “fast-sexy-Italian sports car.”


The Britannica entry for Novella (summarized) states that the novella originated in Italy during the Middle Ages, where its form was originally based on local events (humorous, political, or amorous). Writers such as Boccaccio, Sacchetti, and Bandello later developed it into a psychologically subtle and structured short tale, using a frame story to unify.

Chaucer introduced it to England with The Canterbury Tales.

During the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and other playwrights used plots from the Italian novella.

The content and form of these tales influenced development of the English novel in the 18th century, and the short story in the 19th century.

The novella flourished in Germany (known as Novelle) in the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies, often contained in a frame story and based on a catastrophic event. It was characterized by brevity, a self-contained plot, and ending with irony, while using restraint of emotion and an objective presentation.

Examples of novellas:

  • Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilich
  • Dostoyevsky – Notes from the Underground
  • Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
  • Henry James – The Aspern Papers

Steve Hooley—April 22, 2022


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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

James Scott Bell—August 12, 2012


Challenges of Writing a Shorter Story:

I have always been a novel writer. I never started out on shorter material, thinking it would be easier to write, as some people might believe. In my mind, a shorter story is more challenging. It’s only been this year that I’ve written shorter stories for Amazon Kindle Worlds. My novellas have been 25,000-30,000 words, at my option. That length forced me to change how I write, but I didn’t want my readers to feel that I’ve short-changed their reading experience because my voice or style has been stripped down.

Personal Challenges:

1.) Plots must be simpler – This has taken some new thinking and conceiving of plots in advance while I’m planning my story. More intense story lines with complex layers have to be shed in order to peel back to the essence of a story.

2.) Minimize subplots – Subplots can still be done, but they are more of a challenge, so I try to limit the way I think out a story. The subplot must be integral to the overall story and enhance the pace or suspense.

3.) Setting descriptions and prose must be simplified – Getting straight to the bare emotional elements of a scene or a story will stick with readers and provide them with a solid reading experience, without making them feel that the writing is too sparse. I must be truly selective on what images I choose and the wording I use to create the most impact.

4.) Novellas are like screenplays – My shorter stories are more like screenplays with a focus on dialogue and major plots movements, less on back story and lengthy internal monologue.

5.) Novellas are like the visuals of film – I like this aspect. Give the reader a visual experience as if they are watching a movie. The scenes must have memorable images to tap into their minds quicker, using fewer words to do it.

Jordan Dane—April 21, 2016


Thanks for revisiting the novella today. Now it’s your to weigh in.

  1. Do you enjoy reading at the novella length? Do you agree with the definition of novella that Steve shared above?
  2. Do you write novellas? What tips do you have ?
  3. If you do write at the novella length, what challenges have you encountered? How have you overcome them?
  4. Have you published a novella, traditionally or indie? If so, how has it gone? What differences, if any, do you see in how novellas are marketed versus novels?

18 thoughts on “Novella Words of Wisdom

  1. I’ve written three in my Mapleton Mystery series. They gave me a chance to step away from my main protagonist and give secondary characters a chance to bask in the spotlight, and also to ‘go back in time’ and provide back story/history that I didn’t think would have been compelling enough for a full-length novel.

  2. I wrote my first novella last year. It was an excellent learning experience because of the need to seriously make EVERY word count! Writing with only one plot line and no subplots was challenging. Perhaps because real life is never just one plot line happening LOL. But I did enjoy the process and look forward to doing more.

    On a side note, my novella was in a collection with several others so when we released the collection we made it to the #1 spot on Amazon’s new release list in multiple categories. For me, that was an exciting milestone in my writing journey.

    • Congratulations on both succeeding in writing your first novella, Lori, and in the publishing success it found. That is definitely an exciting publishing milestone.

  3. Good post! Yes, I agree with Steve’s definition. I enjoy reading both novellas and novels. I’ve written two myself (plus a novella-length collection), but I’m working on a longer novel rightnow.

    • Thanks, Priscilla. It’s a fun length to read and write. Stephen King in his introduction to “Different Seasons,” his novella collection, noted how the novella was a bit of an orphan, publishing wise. Fortunately things have changed now, both in traditional publishing and especially with indie publishing.

  4. Thanks for including my post from two years ago, Dale. And thanks for revisiting this topic.

    I do enjoy reading novellas and need to search for more of them. If any readers today list some of their favorites, I’ll certainly make a list.

    I’ve written two novellas, one as a prequel to my YA fantasy series (I use it as a reward for signing up for my newsletter), and one as an experiment to try writing a Kindle Vella story without an outline (Confession. Halfway through I returned to outlining).

    Tips: Careful planning, even if you don’t use an outline.

    Marketing: Novellas make perfect rewards for newsletter signups, or gift drawings.

    Thanks for pulling these articles from the archives. We appreciate your efforts.
    Great post!

    • Thank you, Steve, for your excellent post from two years ago that I piggy-backed off this morning. Good tip about careful planning.

      In my case with my prequel novella “Renegade,” I wrote a rough initial version months earlier, and then, after finishing the second novel in my “Empowered” series,” started again, with an outline. The earlier effort ended up being a sort of test bed for the novella, and definitely helped, but my final version was quite different.

      “Renegade” was published about six weeks before I released my first “Empowered” novel and really helped boost my mailing list.

  5. This is a timely and helpful post. I am just starting to figure out a Christmas novella in my (as yet unpublished) cozy bibliomystery series. I’ll pay more attention to plotting in light of this advice.

  6. I’ve written on novella, SOFT TARGETS, which is a prequel of sorts to my Jonathan Grave series. It tells the story of how Jonathan and FBI Director Irene Rivers first met. I put it out through my publisher, Kensington, and I was surprised at how well it did–and continues to do.

    One downside for novellas is the fact that it’s pretty much an eBook only market. I get a lot of emails from my paper-based fans who are upset by this. Paper readers are paper readers, and they don’t like shifting to a different format.

    The other downside I’ve found is that many readers don’t pay attention to what they’re buying. Many reach out to me to complain that the “book was too short.”

    All of that notwithstanding, I enjoy both reading and writing the shorter format. Especially with a series, novellas are a great way to fill in world building gaps that don’t warrant a full novel.

    • You bring up a very important point about paper readers being paper readers, and not wanting to read ebooks. I saw that regularly when I worked at the library, and also as indie author.

  7. Another helpful blog, Dale. I’ve written one novella, ICE BLONDE, as part of my Angela Richman series. It’s done well. I enjoyed writing it, but my publisher likes novels, so . . .

    • Thanks, Elaine. I think some of this may depend on genre. In the past ten years or so novellas are appearing more often from science fiction and fantasy publishers. Martha Wells’ “Murderbot Diaries” is mostly novellas, and TOR makes those available in print as well as eBook. I’m not seeing novellas much from mystery and thriller publishers.

  8. Very interesting post, Dale. I suppose my latest 30K word middle-grade novel might qualify as a novella. I hope to write more in that series and plan to have them around the same length.

    I don’t really have a preference about the length of whatever I’m reading. It’s the story that counts.

    Thanks for another great selection from the archives!

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