Writing

How to Write a Novella: Step-by-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 14, 2019 • 5 min read

If you’ve ever wanted to write a work of fiction but feel daunted by the prospect of writing a full novel, you might consider writing a novella. Some of the most famous writers in the western canon honed their narrative skills by writing novellas—George Orwell with Animal Farm or Thomas Mann with Death in Venice, and Franz Kafka with The Metamorphosis to name a few. Learning the ins and outs of novella writing can help you take your fiction writing craft to the next level.

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What Is a Novella?

A novella is a stand-alone piece of fiction that is shorter than a full-length novel but longer than a short story. Novellas incorporate many narrative and structural elements of novel-length stories, but they often focus on a single point of view. It would be reductive to think of the novella (or novelette) as simply a short novel, as there are many other hallmarks of the form that separate it from novels beyond just a basic word count.

How Long Is a Novella?

There is no page count or set number of words or for what constitutes a novella, but novellas are often classified as having a word count somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 words.

Novellas vs. Novels: What’s the Difference?

The most obvious difference between novels and novellas is page length and number of words. However, beyond this superficial difference there are many structural and thematic hallmarks of novellas that make them their own standalone genre of writing. Some of these include:

  • A single central conflict. Most novellas explore a single, compelling central conflict. Because of their shorter length, novellas have less time to explore subplots and tend to focus on the main plot. Novellas generally have one main character and a handful of secondary characters. Because of length constraints, most of the character development will be focused on the protagonist.
  • Fast pacing. Novellas usually move at a quick pace. Whereas novels can spend time diverging from the central conflict to delve into back story and explore multiple points of view, novellas generally offer a quick compelling story with a singular point of view.
  • Unity of time and place. When writing novellas, writers should root the action in continuous time within a limited space, ideally one location.
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3 Different Types of Novellas

Most novellas fall into a few genres. Generally speaking, you won’t find novellas that stray far from these categories, but of course there are exceptions to the rule. As you approach writing your first novella, think about which of these categories appeal to you as a reader and writer and what story ideas you might have that fit into these genres that are conducive to the novella form.

  1. Literary novella: The literary novella generally explores character psychology in depth at the expense of more elaborate plotlines. Famous examples of literary novellas include: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
  2. Inspirational novella: Inspirational novellas are generally uplifting stories that appeal to readers of all ages. Bestselling inspirational novellas include The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
  3. Genre novella: Genre novellas usually fall into several subcategories including science fiction, suspense, horror, and fantasy. These genres are generally conducive to stories with a single storyline that can be told quickly and fit standard novella length. Famous examples of genre novellas include The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

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How to Write a Novella

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Before you sit down to write your first novella, it’s important to appreciate the form. It would be premature to start to craft your own story without first reading a collection of novellas and taking stock of elements that appeal to you. Once you feel like you have a sense of the form, it’s time to start writing. Below are some tips to aid you in crafting your novella:

  1. Create a compelling central character. Novellas generally focus on one main character. It’s important to spend a fair amount of time in your pre-writing process fleshing out your protagonist. Make sure you know this person inside and out and that you find them compelling enough to follow through an entire story. If you’re planning on writing your novella in first person, you should understand the way this person talks and communicates since you will be writing entirely from their point of view.
  2. Focus on one or two central relationships. Once you’ve defined your protagonist, decide on one or two central relationships that you will include in your story. You don’t have the time or space to write a sprawling story covering many relationships, so focus on the one or two that feel most compelling to you.
  3. Decide on the main plot. The plot of your novella should be mapped out before you start writing. You should have a sense for the beats of your story and be able to clearly chart the dramatic arc of your narrative.
  4. Structure your story. Decide on what sort of dramatic structure you’re using to tell your story. Your story might be too short to use a traditional three act structure, so keep this in mind as you map out your narrative to ensure that you have enough to justify writing a novella versus a short story.
  5. Write. Once you’ve adequately prepared and feel that you know your story and characters, it’s time to start writing. The writing process can be daunting, but if you’ve done your homework, you can take comfort in the fact that you already have a roadmap for your story that you now just have to execute.
  6. Edit. Once you have a first draft, it’s time to start the editing process. Novellas involve fewer words than a long story, which makes the editing process all the more important. Revise and cut superfluous sections and make sure your novella is as concise and compelling as possible.
  7. Publish. Once you have a finished manuscript, it’s time to start sending it out to any contacts you have in the publishing world. Getting a literary agent can help connect you with book publishers who might be interested in your work. Depending on how long your novella is, short story collections or literary magazines might be interested in publishing selections from your novella or possibly serializing it. Self-publishing is always an option, and short works like novellas can often do quite well when sold as digital ebooks accessible on handheld devices like the Kindle.

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