A novella is a short novel. It’s typically 20-40,000 words, though those are just guidelines. Novellas aren’t as common as full-length novels. Since there’s not a shelf for novellas at the library or bookstore, they’re not published often. That being said, Stephen King just put out a collection of novellas called If It Bleeds in 2020, so certainly it happens! It you want to try your hand at this literary art form, read on for my best tips for writing a novella.
Read the Classics
For all I just said about novellas being an uncommonly published form, some of them are classics of the classics. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was Truman Capote’s 1958 title that came in at a little over 26,000 words and is practically immortal after the movie was made. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (now a Will Smith movie!), and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (a movie starring Mickey Mouse!) are all novellas. A lot can be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. The good news is that since they’re short, you should be able to get through many novellas quickly for your research.
Read Genre Novellas
Romance publishes many novellas, and Harlequin publishes shorter series novels that share a theme, like small town romance or medical stories. Obviously mystery/thriller/horror king Stephen King does it too, and I’ve even read one by a favorite spy writer, Olen Steinhauer, called You Know What’s Going On (2011). I was so thirsty for more of his work after I read The Tourist (2009), I was happy to have anything. In fact, this is what drives genre or other commercial novelists to write novellas—it’s a chance to give their audience a little snack until they can complete a longer work. This is definitely now a “thing” in the world of Netflix and binge watching, or in this case, binge reading. Once you get into a writer, you want more, and authors can produce novellas faster, ergo…you might find yourself writing them at some point.
Key Factors of Novellas
The key factors of novellas are that they are complete stories told in, generally, less than 40,000 but more than 20,000 words. Anything much shorter ends up in short story territory. These books truly are just short novels. That means they have a beginning, middle, and an end, an arc, and all the other goodies of a novel. However, due to time constraints, you’ll usually find just one central story (no secondary plots). There also isn’t time for a big cast of characters—typically the author sticks to just a few protagonists.
Another result of a novella is a faster pace (no side plots or time for much introspection). Finally, there is often a big plot twist, sometimes called wendepunkt. Many novels have this, but the novella is known for high impact, gasp-worthy turns.
Finally, novellas often use symbolism to push their thesis. And yes, there’s often a message the writer is trying to impart. Think of Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm. The fact that politics takes place in a barnyard is about the clearest metaphor he could make.
Just because novellas aren’t commonplace doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in the canon or in popular culture. Who knows, maybe yours will become the next The Old Man and the Sea.