Novels, novelettes, novellas, short stories – what are they, what's the difference, and how does one go about writing them?
Most people are well-acquainted with a novel. They are wonderful. We love them. Classic, great, can’t get enough.
But as an author, you have more options. Trying to stretch a story concept into a full-length novel when it’s simply not meant to be can produce a draggy, boring story. But what if the concept is also too complicated to cover in a short story?
Enter the novella.
Let's talk about what it is, why you'd write one, and, most importantly, how to write a novella that captures hearts and sells books.
This guide on how to write a novella will cover:
What is a novella?
A novella is a fiction book that is longer than a novel, but shorter than a short story. It is usually between 20,000 and 50,000 words, or about 100-200 formatted pages.
It can still contain a richly complex story, a Hero's Journey, and a cast of characters – a novella just does all that in a condensed format.
How many pages is considered a novella?
As we mentioned, a novella is usually between 10,000 to 40,000 words. For comparison, here are the word counts generally associated with other types of fictional prose:
- Flash fiction: Less than 1,000 words (less than 4 pages)
- Short story: 1,000 – 10,000 words (5 – 50 pages)
- Novelette: 10,000 – 20,000 words (40 – 80 pages)
- Novella: 20,000 – 50,000 words (80 – 200 pages)
- Novel: 50,000+ words (200+ pages)
These numbers can vary based on the decisions an author/publisher makes during the book formatting step, such as font size, margins, and the requirements of the printer.
It's not only about word count, though. There are some subtle differences between novels and novellas, as well as novellas and short stories. Let’s talk about it!
What’s the difference between a novel, a novella, and a novelette?
It's true that the main difference between novels, novellas, and novelettes is word count.
But it's not the only difference.
One is often the complexity of the plot and characters. A novel simply has more space to develop more complicated plots and characters, so it will include more of those elements than a novella or novelette would.
As you move along the sliding scale from novelette to novella to novel, the elements should grow more complex. Plots, characters, themes, pacing, worldbuilding, and general concepts can be further explored in a longer piece. You may include subplots, more dynamic characters, deeper and even contradictory character motivations that require more backstory to fully explore, and more.
Novelettes and novellas often have a much simpler premise. They are generally faster-paced, happen in one time, and have only one central conflict. They also rely more heavily on symbolism, motifs, metaphors, and imagery to tell the story.
How to write a novella: 8 step-by-step ways to craft the perfect story
So, you might be asking yourself, “Should I write a novel or a novella?” The beauty is, as an author, the decision is 100% yours! But if you're ready to learn more about how to write a novella, you're in the right place.
A hugely important part of writing a successful novella is being intentional. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you with the process.
1. Become familiar with novellas
As with anything, it might be helpful to do your homework!
I recommend reading as many novellas as possible, particularly the genre you’re interested in writing. Take notes about how the stories unfold. Try to understand what makes them strong or weak, what appeals to you personally as a writer, and which ones are similar to what you’re trying to do with your own story.
2. Decide on the type of novella you want to write
In order to learn how to write a novella, you also need to know the specifics of the type of novella you want to write.
Novellas typically fall into one of three categories: literary, inspirational, and genre.
Literary novellas are usually character-driven vs plot-driven, typically a bit “deeper,” and make some kind of point or aim to teach a specific lesson. In the examples of novellas below, you'll find Home by Toni Morrison, which is a strong example of a literary novella.
Inspirational novellas are often shorter novellas. They’re usually more like parables, which makes them appeal to younger readers.
Genre novellas are your fantasy/sci-fi, mystery, and action-adventure stories. These are our “just for fun” novellas. It’s also very common for erotic romance to appear in novella form since a novella is a perfect length to get to know the characters and world without dragging on unnecessarily. In romance novellas, the physical relationship is the focal point of the story.
3. Carefully plan your novella outline
Many writers resist creating a book outline for their novella. But this is a critical step for learning how to write a novella, as a concise story and low word count are hallmarks of this format.
Your outline can be anything that suits your writing style—a quick bullet point of the main points you want to hit, a detailed scene-by-scene summary, or any other form you prefer.
The next few points will give you some more things to consider while outlining your book.
4. Pick one central conflict
First, think of the main question or conflict that will occur. A novella should generally only have one. This helps keep the story and plot focused.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What is happening to your protagonist?
- What do they have to overcome?
- What is the Call to Adventure, and how will it be delivered?
- How will conflict be resolved in a short amount of time?
5. Pay attention to pacing
Before you begin writing your novella, make sure your pacing is on par. It can’t drag on, but it still needs to include all the necessary details. Remember, you’ve got a small space to tell this story.
It also needs to be balanced. If the first half drags, it will likely feel very cramped in the second half (or vice versa). Make sure the tension, conflict, and intrigue are paced in a way that will keep your readers engaged, not feeling bored or rushed.
Unless you’re doing it on purpose.
From the examples of novellas below, The Factory actually makes the reader feel bored and uncomfortable on purpose in order to deliver the subject matter more tangibly.
There are no enforceable rules in writing, but whatever you do, do it intentionally!
6. Tell the story from one clear point of view and time
You should also decide what your narrative point-of-view will be before you start writing. Similar to some of these other tips and steps for how to write a novella, we recommend that you choose and stick to just one.
This will keep the story clear from start to finish.
So ask yourself if we will be seeing the world in first-person, second-person POV, or third-person POV. Is it in the present or past tense?
7. Keep your cast small
Most authors elect to par down their character list when writing a novella. Due to the brevity of the book, you can likely omit stock characters, flat characters, and any other character that isn't clearly moving along the plot of the story or the character arc of the protagonist.
Start by identifying what types of characters your novella needs and how many. Then develop them with some of these questions:
- Which character arc(s) will you focus on?
- How will they change by the end of the story?
- How do their personal weaknesses clash with the conflict?
- What strengths will they find or develop that will help them overcome it?
- Do you have secondary characters?
- Do they have their own arcs?
- In what way are they important to the overall story arc and the main character(s)?
8. Edit intentionally
The shorter the piece of fiction, the stronger your prose should be.
With fewer words, you need to be precise. With less space to tell the story, it’s important to use metaphors effectively. With a shorter amount of time to hold your reader’s attention, you need to make sure the themes and morals are conveyed.
Learning how to become an editor and love the editing process is a crucial part of learning how to write a novella. Don’t rush it.
Examples of novellas
Novellas are quick reads, which makes them very appealing to readers with lofty reading goals! It's also perfect for people that like to finish a story in one sitting.
Here are a few good novellas if you’d like to dip your toes in the genre as a reader.
The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht
“The city of Elendhaven sulks on the edge of the ocean. Wracked by plague, abandoned by the South, stripped of industry, and left to die. But not everything dies so easily. A thing without a name stalks the city, a thing shaped like a man, with a dark heart and long pale fingers yearning to wrap around throats. A monster who cannot die. His frail master sends him out on errands, twisting him with magic, crafting a plan too cruel to name, while the monster’s heart grows fonder and colder, and more cunning.
These monsters of Elendhaven will have their revenge on everyone who wronged the city, even if they have to burn the world to do it.”
Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
“Mrs. Bertrice Martin—a widow, some seventy-three years young—has kept her youthful-ish appearance with the most powerful of home remedies: daily doses of spite, regular baths in man tears, and refusing to give so much as a single damn about her Terrible Nephew.
Then proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, a sprightly young thing of nine and sixty, crashes into her life. The Terrible Nephew is living in her rooming house, and Violetta wants him gone.
Mrs. Martin isn’t about to start giving damns, not even for someone as intriguing as Miss Violetta. But she hatches another plan—to make her nephew sorry, to make Miss Violetta smile, and to have the finest adventure of all time.
If she makes Terrible Men angry and wins the hand of a lovely lady in the process? Those are just added bonuses.”
You, Me, U.S. by Brigitte Bautista
“Best friends Jo and Liza are as opposite as night and day. Sex worker Jo swears by the worry-free, one-day-at-a-time dance through life. Salesclerk Liza has big plans for her family's future, and there is nothing bigger than a one-way trip to the U.S. But an almost-kiss, a sex dare, and news of Liza's engagement to her American boyfriend unveil feelings Jo and Liza never thought they had. Deciding between staying together and drifting apart puts Liza's best-laid plans and Jo’s laidback life in jeopardy.
When love clashes with lifelong ambitions and family expectations, someone has to give in.
Question is: who?”
Home by Toni Morrison
“Frank Money is an angry, self-loathing veteran of the Korean War who, after traumatic experiences on the front lines, finds himself back in racist America with more than just physical scars. His home may seem alien to him, but he is shocked out of his crippling apathy by the need to rescue his medically abused younger sister and take her back to the small Georgia town they come from and that he's hated all his life.”
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada
“The Factory follows three workers at a sprawling industrial factory. Each worker focuses intently on the specific task they've been assigned: one shreds paper, one proofreads documents, and another studies the moss growing all over the expansive grounds. But their lives slowly become governed by their work―days take on a strange logic and momentum, and little by little, the margins of reality seem to be dissolving: Where does the factory end and the rest of the world begin? What's going on with the strange animals here? And after a while―it could be weeks or years―the three workers struggle to answer the most basic question: What am I doing here?”
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“The Little Prince is an honest and beautiful story about loneliness, friendship, sadness, and love. The prince is a small boy from a tiny planet (an asteroid, to be precise), who travels the universe, planet to planet, seeking wisdom. On his journey, he discovers the unpredictable nature of adults.”
Ready to write your novella?
By now, you know what a novella is, can distinguish between a novella and a novel, and have some great tips on how to write a novella (if you've decided that's the right vehicle for your story).
Just remember, that while the basic story structure of a novella is similar to a novel, you obviously have to fit it in a more compact space. Make sure your story is suited to a novella.
Sometimes a writer will begin writing what they think is a novella, then it naturally expands itself into a novel. That’s fine!
I’ve found the reverse is true in my own writing. I tried to start what I thought was a novel recently, and it ended up as a short story. A while back, I tried to write a short story, and it quickly turned into a novella.
As a writer, I personally end up with novellas only when a short story runs too long, or a novel runs too short. And that’s a perfectly fine way to develop a novella! Let the story – and the characters – tell you how much space it/they need to grow.
And if you feel like you need a little extra support, you can always hire a book writing coach. This person will guide your novella-writing journey and provide helpful tips along the way.