The Key to writing a Novella that works

I held my breath after I asked a friend what he thought of a novella I wrote. The gist of his response was, “I wanted more.”

It wasn’t a compliment.

He wasn’t saying “I loved your story so much, I can’t wait for the next one.” He was saying “Something was lacking. Your novella didn’t work.”

Novellas are the awkward middle children of publishing, weighing in at a minimum of 14,000 words and maxing out at 39,999 words (This varies based on who you ask). Because of economic reasons, the traditional publishing industry has fed us a steady diet of novels and short stories.

Writers read, study, and learn by osmosis through the stuff they read. Most of us have not read and studied novellas, but after my experience with my friend, I decided to do just that.

I discovered the goal of the novella is to produce the same power punch experience a novel does, but with less words.

However, a novella is not a novel told quickly.

If you take a trip to Paris, you don’t want your tour guide to speed through the streets and say “That blur to your left is the Eiffel Tower, to your right is the best café in town and you might even get to smell the coffee over the smell of our exhaust fumes, and, oh, there’s a real Parisian diving to the sidewalk to get out of our way.”

You want to see the lights of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. You want sit and sip the coffee yourself. You want to have an up-close encounter with that real Parisian where he will likely snub you because of your subpar French.

The point is a good vacation means a truly immersive experience in that world. The same goes for novellas. But how do you provide that experience when you have fewer words to work with?

Here’s the key: Less is more when it comes to novellas.

 As I get into specifics, this advice may seem obvious, but it will save many writers from trying to cram a novel into a novella.

You should have only a few characters.

 Have you ever been to a party where you were introduced to twenty people? It’s overwhelming. Who can remember that many names or their relationships to each other or their occupations?

The same goes with novellas. The reader doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with characters. Novellas should only have a few.

Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is a perfect example of this. The old man, the young boy, and the marlin are the only characters. Yes, you have some references to the townspeople and the boy’s parents, but Hemmingway really boils it down to these three characters.

Can you have more than three? Yes, but the more characters you need to tell your story, the more breathing room your story needs.

You should have fewer point of view characters.

 A novella should have only one point of view character. At the very least, your novella should follow one character for the first 10,000 words.

Why? Immersing the reader into a character’s life requires time. If you switch point of view, the reader has to reorient herself to the new character. A novella’s shortness doesn’t provide the luxury for multiple reorientations.

Are there exceptions? Sure. In Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats, he has several point of view characters. It works because he is writing a mini-plot rather than an arch-plot story. In other words, Tortilla Flats functions like several short stories connecting the lives of several people through a singular theme rather than one giant plotline.

If your story is an arch-plot, I’d steer clear of multiple POVs.

Scale back your Act One.

 Your act one is where you introduce the normal life of your protagonists and all your other main characters before the turning point of act two.

Typically your first act comprises about 25 percent of your story. 50 percent of the story belongs to the second act and the climatic third act gets the final 25 percent. Don’t ask me why, but the human mind is accustomed to this story structure. If a reader spends sixty percent of the book learning who the characters are and then only gets 40 percent building action and climax, she’ll feel cheated.

The length of your first act is like a promise to the reader of how long the rest of your book is.

Science fiction novels are typically longer because establishing the normal world of the science fiction novel takes more time.

The novella’s act one should be short. If you’ve written 20,000 words and you just reached the act two turning point, then you have a novel to write, not a novella.

You must have fewer scenes.

 Today’s average novel has around sixty scenes. Novellas should have no more than thirty. If you have more, there’s a good chance you have a novel, not a novella.

The more settings you have and the longer time period you cover, the more likely you are looking at a novel.

But what if I have sixty scenes and my book is still novella length?

That means there are other areas of writing craft you need to work on that goes beyond the scope of this post. You haven’t teased out the suspense, drama, and mystery enough or you’ve included scenes that should be cut or both.

Shouldn’t I just write my story until it’s done and not worry about length?

 Yes, but the common answer to the question “How long should my story be?” is usually “Your story should be as long as it needs to be to tell your story”. I agree, but it’s not all that helpful advice to the new writer.

The tendency is for the new writer to rush the narrative. Hopefully my guidelines on the novella will help you not end up on the receiving end of a comment like “I wanted more.”

Major Fiction Writing Mistakes: Information Dumps and Dumpettes

Jen and I got an audiobook for a recent road trip. We chose an author neither of us had read before. Yes, we live dangerously.

The gamble wasn’t too bad, but we didn’t quite hit the jackpot. The story was intriguing and the characters seemed real, but the author had a terrible habit:

Information dumps.

Jen and I learned the backstory for a large cast of characters almost from the moment we were introduced to them. My mind wandered when we were regaled with the journalist’s extensive employment history and the long relationship between the police chief and the main character. Rather than engaging with the information, I contemplated whether getting Flaming Hot Cheetos at our next pit stop would be worth the red stained fingers I would have for the next couple days.

Information dumps slow down the narrative.

They also don’t have to be as extreme as what I’ve just described to detract from your story.

Even short info dumps (or dumpettes, as I like to call them) can negatively affect your story.

Here’s an example:

Jack and Jill, a retired surgeon, go up the hill.

Jill’s occupation has nothing to do with the tragic story of Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water, unless of course she mends Jack’s broken crown after they came tumbling down. Even if that’s the case, it’s an obtuse way to introduce information the reader needs.

It’s better to have Jill flipping through a catalogue of the latest surgical tools while geeking out about how her work would have been so much easier if she had the BoneSaw 5000. Jack could then make a comment about how morbid she was and then ask her to go up the hill to fetch that pail of water.

If you can introduce important character background organically through action and dialogue, it will  be surprising when that background information is utilized later in the story.

Information dumps also come in forms other than character backgrounds.

 One form is by describing a character’s character. This is the most egregious way of breaking the classic “show, don’t tell” writing advice. Don’t tell me your antagonist is evil; show me. Don’t tell me the sidekick is lovable; show me through action and dialogue.

Another form of the info dump is the technical info dump. Technical information can be engaging, but often it comes off as a lecture inserted awkwardly into fiction.

Lee Child pulls off technical information well in the beginning of his book Gone Tomorrow. He adeptly tells the reader how Israeli counterintelligence spots a suicide bomber.

It works because:

1) The information is extremely interesting.

2) The main character, Jack Reacher, is actively thinking about the information as he assesses a possible suicide bomber on a New York subway.

3) He doesn’t give the information all at once, but instead allows tension to build as he matches each characteristic against the suspect on the subway.

Too often, technical information is inserted like this:

Detective Smith saw the front door had been kicked in and immediately pulled is .44 Magnum. He liked to use the Magnum rather than the standard issue Glock because….

And that’s when you get the lecture about the gun’s stopping capacity and reliability.

This doesn’t work because:

1) Gun specs are overdone in books and therefore not as interesting.

2) Neither Detective Smith nor your readers are thinking about gun specs at the time. They care about the danger in the house.

3) The information is a long, uniterrupted paragraph blocking the flow of the story.

Dialogue often contains information dumps.

 Robert McKee talks about a common and terrible line in movie scripts that goes something like this:

How long have we known each other, Bob? It must be thirty years, right? When we both worked down at McGruber’s.

The only reason this dialogue exists is to tell the audience the two characters have a long history. Characters shouldn’t ever utter dialogue solely to give the audience information.

One way to naturally introduce information through dialogue is to have a character who is new to the group ask questions. The new kid at school is shown around and gets the inside scoop on all the relationships; The new girlfriend asks about the scar on the cop’s arm; the baby reindeer asks why Rudolph is an outcast.

But what if the best way to get the reader the information they need is to tell them?

 Then tell them, but author and editor Jeff Gerke suggests writers do zero “telling” and all “showing” in the first 50 pages of a novel. Is this rule hard and fast? No, but the big problem with information dumps is they are usually boring.

And “Don’t be boring” is a hard and fast rule.

Major Fiction Writing Mistakes: Tensionlessness

Your audience wants to see bad stuff happen. Reading about a character going through the motions of her day is boring. We crave tension and we want it in every single scene of your book.

A major temptation is showing your protagonist living in Happy World Land before dropping her on the bullet train to heck.

 Some writers believe showing a character in happy moments will endear her to the reader.

The horrible truth of the human condition is that even the happiest people are dissatisfied with aspects of their lives. Unbridled happiness isn’t reality and, therefore, doesn’t resonate.

Tension does.

But how do you have tension even before the first major crisis of your book?

 Glad you asked. Here are some ways to do just that:


  • Start with the major crisis on page one.   Is your pre-crisis world really necessary? Really? If the answer is no, then skip it. Your crisis itself can hit readers at a gut level and instantly draw them into the story.
  • Begin with minor tensions. Put your character in line at the DMV. Have her bicker with a family member. Give her the flu.
  • Showcase character flaws your protagonist is unaware of. Maybe your protagonist lives alone and is content to celebrate his birthday by ordering a pizza for himself. Screenwriter Blake Snyder would call this “stasis equals death”. The reader will feel the tension even if your character doesn’t.  That lonely guy has to get out of his house and live his life. If he doesn’t do something, he’s lost.
  • Overemphasize the happiness. If your character is happily married with 2.3 kids, owns a ranch-style house in the suburbs, and just got a new promotion at her job, then you are giving readers the cue that her world is about to come crashing down. The tension comes from the reader realizing some unknown horror is a few pages away while the character is blissfully unaware.

Tension should rise throughout your story.

Don’t let up. Your character may reflect on the obstacle she just overcame, but then the next obstacle should be bigger and more tension-filled than the last.

Tension should even be in the denouement of your story.

By definition, a denouement means the loosening of tension, but there’s still tension. Oh, yes, there is. It’s the tension of looking backward and forward at the same time.

If you’ve ever been through a traumatic experience, you might look back with sadness, remorse, or gratefulness that you made it through the ordeal.

You also look forward with a changed perspective. Maybe you’re more hopeful, suspicious, confident, or sober than you were before.

Even in the thriller or mystery series, this is true. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher reasserts his vagabond lifestyle after being entangled in the latest political plot. The hard-boiled detective becomes more jaded after uncovering yet another avenue of human depravity.

Tension drives story.

 Stop thinking of stories as plot-driven or character-driven. Stories are propelled forward by tension.

Major Fiction Writing Mistake: Vagueness

Maybe you’ve seen a police procedural TV show where one detective asks “Do you believe her?” and the other detective says something like “With those details, she couldn’t be lying.”

When someone lies, he or she tends to be vague. Truth is often accompanied by specific detail.

If you’re a parent, you may have experience with this phenomenon as well. You might hear a ruckus in the next room and ask, “What are you and your sister doing in there?”

A small voice says, “Nothing. Just playing.”

You smell the lie a mile away and yell, “Come in here and play where I can see you.”

Compelling fiction requires good lying.

Have you ever read a novel and got the distinct impression the writer didn’t have any idea what he was talking about? You think, “This writer doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a goat herder in Nepal.”

YOU also have no idea what it’s like to be a goat herder in Nepal either, so why are you busting the writer’s chops? Probably because of vagueness. It smells like a lie.

Specificity is key.

Let’s say you have two men in masks get out of a car to rob a convenience store. Without specificity, even an act as exciting as a robbery can be boring. Know why? Because it’s generic, not specific.

Now I tell you two men wearing Tom and Jerry masks get out of a Ford Mustang to rob a 7-11, it already becomes more interesting. The scene comes alive. You can picture it.

You should be specific in action as well.

 The less nebulous your verbs are the better. Instead of saying “two dogs were fighting”, you could say two dogs lunged, growled, or chomped at each other’s throats.

Instead of saying “he preformed a hostile gesture toward me” you could say, “He thrust his chest out toward me.”

Specificity doesn’t necessarily mean writing pages and pages of description.

 If the reader sees tons of description, she may decide it’s filler and skip it.

Specificity means being precise. You could go on and on about a minor character having slick, black hair and a widow’s peak, a pale and pasty complexion, and high arching eyebrows.

Or you could say the character looks like Dracula without the fangs. The reader gets the same image.

Specificity takes work.

 When you write a first draft, it’s okay to be vague. Boring descriptions are normal. Part of your rewriting process should include pumping up your specificity. It can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

Good fiction means getting your reader to believe your lies.