Writing

How to Outline a Novella in 5 Easy Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 3, 2019 • 6 min read

An outline is a valuable resource when you’re writing a novella. The clear plan an outline provides will make your creative writing more fluid, efficient, and even spontaneous. As you gather ideas for your novella, follow your inspiration, but resist the urge to start writing your first draft without a plan. Begin with an outline.

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What Is a Novella?

A novella is literally, by definition, a “short book.” As such, novellas are distinctly shorter than full-length novels, yet they are longer than short stories.

How Long Is a Novella?

Most novellas are roughly a third to half the length of a typical novel. In English language literary markets, novels tend to range from 80,000 to 100,000 words. English language novellas, by contrast, typically have a word count ranging from 30,000 to 60,000. Of course, novellas aren’t judged on their page count or the number of words they contain; novella length is subject to the story itself.

What Is a Novelette?

A novelette is a form that’s longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. The word count for a novelette usually falls between 7,500 and 17,500 words.

6 Examples of Famous Novellas

To get a sense of the novella form, consider these well known examples:

  1. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  3. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  5. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
  6. The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
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3 Reasons It’s Important to Outline Your Novella

A novella is a short novel, and a great novella must contain many of the same elements you’d find in a great novel or short story. While many aspiring writers may find it less daunting to write a first novella than a first novel, novellas do present challenges. As with creating a novel outline, outlining your novella allows you the space to work through these challenges by mapping your main plot, subplots, storylines, and character arcs. Here are some reasons outlining is essential for novella writers:

  1. Outlining ensures efficiency. Novella writing gives you fewer words and pages to work with than novel writing, and thus requires a more calculated use of words. If you know where you’re going with your story, you’ll waste less time getting there.
  2. Outlining improves pacing. Though the novella form requires brevity, you still may want to weave multiple storylines together in your narrative. By mapping out the action ahead of time, you can find the perfect balance of plot and subplot.
  3. Outlining strengthens your protagonist. A compelling main character with a clear point of view is essential to a novella some degree of a character arc, key plot points to anchor the narrative, and a satisfying ending.

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5 Elements of a Novella Outline

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A good novella outline includes these five elements:

  1. A problem: What is the central conflict that will drive your narrative? Whatever you choose must be compelling enough to anchor your entire plot structure. If your main conflict can’t hold your reader’s attention through the entire novella, you need to either expand the conflict or shorten the story. If your problem seems particularly vast, perhaps you should consider a full-length novel.
  2. A solution to the problem: When it comes to creative writing, some authors don’t like to have all their questions answered before they begin; they want to discover the story alongside their characters. That can be a great technique, but some story elements must be known before you draft a single sentence of your first paragraph. One such element is the overall solution to your novella’s main conflict.
  3. Character development: A novella outline is a great way to keep tabs on your main character’s life as your tale unfolds. Make note of every scene in which your protagonist appears. Keep tabs on their growth while giving them a consistent point of view. Their backstory will be important too, even if you only lightly address it in the outline. Learn more about character development in our complete guide here.
  4. Critical plot points: As with novels, novellas have plot points that anchor their narrative—from an initial hook to the rising action to the turning point to the climax to the denouement. Get these plot anchors in your outline, and make sure they are adequately spaced within your story structure.
  5. Worldbuilding. Novella writers must flesh out a narrative with details both grand and picayune that convey a sense of time and place to the reader. If you have ideas for textured detail during the outlining process, get them down on the page. This will help you remember them, and it will also let you track the quality and consistency of your worldbuilding throughout the novella. After all, readers want to understand the world and context in which your story takes place. These textural elements make narratives compelling.

How to Outline Your Novella

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Writing fiction requires thorough structure and careful attention to detail. Here are four writing tips to help you inject that structure and detail into your outline as you work to craft a good story:

1. Condense Your Narrative Into a Single Sentence.

Let that sentence serve as a rough outline template for every draft you create. This technique—which is also the first step in what’s known as the snowflake method—keeps you accountable to a core storyline at all times. A well-composed short story, long story, novella, or full novel can often be anchored around just one sentence, with every other detail functioning as an extension of that sentence.

2. Create a First Draft of Your Outline.

This outline will include only the broadest story road map. Focus on the big picture: the inciting action, the climax, the resolution. You’ll fill in the rest of the story later, but first you’ll want to see the broad sequence of events on the page to make sure you have enough for a compelling piece of short fiction.

3. Focus on Your Protagonist’s Desires.

As you outline, ask yourself what your main character wants in each individual scene. The best novella writers are skilled at crafting brief scenes that accomplish a great deal with very little real estate. There is nothing more important than your protagonist’s persona, needs, and character arc; making sure every scene services those elements will naturally make the storytelling efficient.

4. Use Conflict to Keep Things Interesting.

Readers respond to conflict. As with music, good fiction writing cycles through tension and release. Use new and unexpected conflict to keep the tension coming. This works across genres from mysteries to thrillers to science fiction to romance to whatever is topping the New York Times bestseller list right now.

5. Keep a Running List of Scene Ideas.

Feel free to jot down scene ideas in your plot outline, even if you don’t yet know where those scenes will occur. Sometimes just seeing all your story ideas laid out in front of you can help you get organized before your write your first chapter.

What Are the Advantages of Outlining?

Some first time novella authors fear that an outline will restrict their creative process. Seasoned fiction writers will tell you the opposite is true. An outline provides structure that allows authors to be creative in a constructive way. Because they already know what their story will be on a high level, they can use the actual writing process to focus on texture, detail, and dialogue—and go through an exciting process of discovery along the way.

Book publishers and literary agents respond well to novellas that have been outlined because those novellas are likely to be well organized. Whether you’re aiming for a bestselling hit or just planning on self-publishing online for Kindle readers, you’re likely to enjoy the process of writing novellas far more if you have a carefully crafted outline to guide you. This holds true for novellas, novelettes, and even a novel-length work of fiction. Learn how to write novellas in our complete guide here.

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