Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Six Pointers in Writing a Novella

Do you read instruction manuals before you start? After you’ve hit a snag? What are instruction manuals?

I know it’s a stereotype that all guys are loathe to read instruction manuals on the theory that they should know better. But stereotypes are based on observed behavior, and as the saying goes, “If the shoe fits, wear it!” I know what instruction manuals are, but often use them only as reference manuals to figure out where the leftover part belongs and how many steps I need to redo.

I’m in the process of writing my first novella. It’s intended for an anthology with the proposed title Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas. I wrote the first draft, revised for a second draft, and sent it to an editor for her to work her magic.

As I sat down to write this blog, the thing that came to mind was to write about novellas, since that’s what I had been working on. At which point, I thought perhaps I should read the instruction manual. What, after all, is a novella?


A quick online search turns up a plethora of references for 20,000 to 40,000 words. Others take the top end up to 60,000. The Hugo Award for Best Novella uses 17,500 to 40,000. The stories in this anthology are to be between 15,000 and 25,000 words. Mine currently sits at 20,800; I’m safe under most definitions. Whew, but it illustrates my point about the dangers of looking at the directions after the project is complete.


The word novella implies a shortened form of novel, but containing all of its elements. Rather than an extension of the short story, a novella will likely contain a traditional three-act structure.


A novel allows for a leisurely reveal of characterization for a number of actors. A short story requires a precise cast and pinpoint characterization. A novella splits the difference, but when in doubt, err on the side of the short story. Take a short story’s approach and use the absolute minimum number of characters possible. Since I am a pantser, I don’t worry about this in my first draft, but in the first rewrite I look for ways to eliminate and combine as much as possible. The novella’s length compared to a short story does allow more space to develop the remaining characters to allow readers a more in-depth understanding of motivations.

Point(s) of View:

Novels often provide the reader with perspectives from multiple characters. This becomes much more difficult when dealing with a novella’s word-count limitation. Plan writing from one character’s POV and deviate only if you must to tell your story.


My Seamus McCree novels run around 90,000 words, which allows me to introduce multiple subplots that may involve crimes, family issues, love interests, personal growth along a multiple-book character arc, or some combination. Short stories have space for only one main storyline. While some suggest sticking only with the central conflict in a novella, I’d feel cheated if there weren’t an interesting subplot as well. However, care must be taken to limit the subplot’s scope to leave room for a complete telling of the central conflict.


Each setting requires additional words to bring the reader along. After the first draft, consider both how scenes can be combined to accomplish multiple ends and how settings can be used for multiple scenes.


A novella’s reduced word-count requires the author to maintain a laser focus on the unifiers in the story: key characters, precise storylines, and multiple-use settings.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on Writers Who Kill 10/15/16