What is a novella?

Grandmaster of Science Fiction Robert Silverberg describes the novella as “one of the richest and most rewarding literary forms” and I couldn’t agree more. It is the literary equivalent of skipping the extra-large caffé grande and sucking down an espresso for an instant jolt of gratification. But what exactly is a novella?

Well, to put it simply, a novella is a piece of narrative prose somewhere between a short story and a full-length adult novel. Average word counts for this style of work vary quite a bit, depending which writing society or publisher you ask! 

As a rough guide, a novella is between 20,000 and 50,000 words. They tend to be quick paced narratives with only a handful of characters and often no subplots. Whereas a novel might take five or so hours (or more) to read, a novella is intended to be enjoyed in one or two sittings.

A novella can make a great candidate for adaptation into a film script, because the plot is so focused and driven. While there are many, many novellas out there, here are just a few of the most well-known ones:

  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (29,000 words)

  • Rita Hayworth & the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King (38,000 words)

  • The Time Machine by HG Wells (32,000 words)

  • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (25,500 words)

  • Of Mice & Men by John Steinbeck (30,000 words)

  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (22,000 words)

Lots of the most prolific and well-known writers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have written and released really successful novellas!

How do you write a novella?

There are lots of similarities between novellas and full-length novels but there are also some important differences to bear in mind while you’re planning and drafting your story:

Pace & Plot. Good novellas keep the central storyline in sight at all times. Main plotlines are rarely too complex; the narrative is usually tight, fast paced and very focused, and there is often no subplot. The limited word count of this story style tends to be fully committed to pushing the story along and rapidly developing a small number of key characters. Conflict is usually introduced very early, often within the first few pages.

Cast & Settings. That short word count comes into play yet again with your cast of characters and the scene settings. Novellas typically feature very small casts (aim for ten or less), very focused character development, condensed backstory (only where necessary) and take place in a relatively small number of different settings. Don’t waste words where you don’t have to.

The Edit. Perhaps the most painful part: be ruthless in your edit! Strip out everything which could be classified as ‘filler’ and remove anything which doesn’t move your story along or contribute to key character development.

Publishing novellas

When it comes to publication, the novella is a slightly different animal to the full-length novel. Unless you’re already a well-known author, you may find more success in the traditional publishing route with smaller publishing houses or through magazines which host a publishing platform. While many publishing professionals love and admire the novella form, they aren’t always quite as easy to sell as full-length novels – although there are always exceptions!

Stephen King is quoted as calling novellas “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic” in relation to commercial publishing but let us also remember that King’s novella anthology Different Seasons contained the works Rita Hayworth & the Shawshank Redemption, and The Body (later turned into cult classic film Stand by Me) – quite possibly some of his best work. The film adaptations of both these stories went on to receive multiple Oscar nominations and other awards.

Ready to get started on your own great novella?

Novellas are wonderful writing projects to work on and, for some writers, can be a useful stepping stone between short stories and learning to write a full-length novel.

Joining the New Year Novella Event is absolutely free. To get started, simply head on over to your [Plot Factory account] and sign up. Novelist tier features will be available to use for your Novella project straightaway; drafting begins on January 1st and if you get your first draft over 20,000 words by the 31st of January we’ll give you another three months of free professional writing tools to see you through your next drafts. When you’re finished, you’ll be able to export your novella to a manuscript or ebook.

Visit this article to find out more about the New Year Novella Event or sign up here.

Cover image: Linus Schütz from Pixabay