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.”

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