For centuries, novellas have sparked the imaginations of writers and readers worldwide. Too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel—the novella embodies the best of both genres, making it a versatile, vibrant form of writing to explore.
While the popularity of the novella form has varied over time, there are two key reasons why writers and readers continue to return to them. First, a novella is the perfect blend of story and character. It’s long enough to explore a complex plot but short enough to keep the reader engaged from beginning to end. Second, novellas are a great way to experiment with new ideas and genres. Whether you’re looking to write a mystery, romance, or historical fiction, the novella is ideal for trying out a new genre without committing to a full-length novel.
Writing a novella is not easy, but the results can be truly magical when done well. Check the literary archives to find a long list of esteemed novella authors who agree—including Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson, and Ernest Hemingway.
So if you’re looking for a new writing challenge, why not try your hand at one? You might just surprise yourself. Follow these tips for writing a novella of your own and see where the story takes you!
What is a novella?
Before we get into how to write a novella, let’s first look at what a novella is. A novella is a piece of fictional literature shorter than a typical novel but longer than a short story.
Knowing it fits somewhere in between, you may ask, “How long is a novella?” Although word counts vary, they are typically between 20,000 to 40,000 words. On the shorter end of the genre is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which comes in around 21,000 words. And on the other end is Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Water, which clocks in at 40,000.
But more so than length, there are characteristics that make novellas unique. Novellas are typically simplistic, fast pace, and symbolic. They also tend to encourage the reader to think deeply about a central question or theme.
What’s the difference between a novella and a novel?
Of course, the main differences between a novella and a novel are word count and complexity. But there are also pacing, symbolism, and thematic differences. Let’s dive in.
The first noticeable difference between the novella and the novel is word count. As mentioned above, a novella is roughly 20,000-40,000 words and no more than 200 total pages. On the other hand, a novel is usually 40,000-80,000 words and over 200 pages.
This greater word length usually equates to a more extended writing time. With more words to play with, a novelist has more space to develop complex characters, explore detailed plotlines, and create a rich and layered story world. Conversely, because the word count for novellas is limited, there is less time for character development and plot complexity.
While a novella may only take a few months to write, a novel can take six months or even years, depending on the length (and the writer, of course).
Novellas usually have a much simpler plot than novels. This is not to say that novellas cannot be complex, but they often rely on one or two key ideas or conflicts that are explored in depth. In addition, they tend to focus on a single character’s development rather than side plots and multiple characters’ backstories.
With the additional words, novels have more space to develop elaborate plotlines. This may include multiple storylines that intersect, characters with intertwining motives and goals, or an intricate web of backstories and revelations. These storylines are usually broken up into chapters—which aren’t characteristic of novellas.
Pacing and plot twists
The shorter word count of novellas usually leads to a faster pace than most novels. As a result, the story moves more quickly in a novella, so you won’t find long, drawn-out scenes. Paired with the fast pace, novellas are often known for their unpredictable and shocking endings that leave the reader reeling.
This is different than novels, which often have a slower speed and more predictable endings. While novels can have shocking moments, they usually build up to them and aren’t as jarring to the reader.
Novellas tend to rely on symbolic writing, imagery, and motifs to explore complex themes in a shorter amount of time. Symbolism can be used to develop characters, deepen the plot, and create a more profound experience for the reader. This symbolism is often dense and can take multiple readings to decipher.
Novels can also be symbolic, but they usually have more room to develop these images and themes. With more words, novels can explore these symbols in greater detail, giving the reader time to reflect—without the need for the audience to read between the lines.
Types of novellas
Novellas usually fall into three categories: literary, inspirational, and genre.
The literary novella is intense but allows for more depth than a short story. Authors of this novella tend to use more challenging language to express the characters’ psychology over the central theme or question, as Earnest Hemingway did in his novella, The Old Man and the Sea. This language could be hard to follow in a longer novel but works in a shorter piece.
An inspirational novella is usually on the shorter side. They pull at readers’ heartstrings to inspire and drive emotion, as Paulo Coelho did in The Alchemist. These types of novellas appeal to readers of all ages, but especially young readers.
The last type is a genre novella. These are specific interests like vampires, steampunk, sci-fi, or horror—like H.P. Lovecraft’s spooky The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In fact, many popular genre novellas have emerged in recent years and are popular with young adult audiences.
Nine steps to writing a novella
Now that you’ve learned what a novella is, it’s time to jump into the steps to write your own. Novellas are a perfect opportunity for first-time writers to develop their writing skills in a shorter format. While writing a novella, you’ll learn to deepen character development, create a plot with structure and twists, and keep within word limits. It may seem daunting at first, but if you follow the steps below, you will be on your way to writing a novella in no time.
1. Read lots of novellas
Just as you wouldn’t want to build a house without studying blueprints and walking through a similar home, you don’t want to start writing a novella if you’ve never carefully read one. Paying attention to the narrative and stylistic choices, structure, and pacing in other novellas will help you craft your own.
You might even discover a novella category you never knew existed. There is a novella type for everyone—from historical and autobiographical stories to science fiction, gothic, and mystery tales. You probably have already read some popular novellas as a child or young adult. Perhaps your reading list has already included Animal Farm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Christmas Carol, and Of Mice and Men. Expand your list with a few more ideas from our blog featuring classic novellas.
2. Outline key scenes
If you’ve written a short story before, you might be surprised to find writing a novella quite different. The more extended structure of a novella demands a more detailed approach.
Before you begin writing, you’ll want to create an outline. It’s vital to know how to create a novella outline to ensure you think through the length and pacing and develop your main character.
First, think about the central conflict your characters will encounter. What is your protagonist’s biggest problem? Once you determine this major crisis, you need to figure out the solution your main character will uncover throughout the novella.
Next is character development. You should have one main character that you develop in more detail than others in your story. Work through what’s essential to the character, their motivation, and their point of view on your prominent theme. You’ll also want to think about developing your supporting characters throughout your story—while not spending too much time with them.
Then you’ll want to develop your plot. Choose a setting for each plot point, note who is involved and the outcome of each event. Then map out your critical scenes from beginning to end. Once you know the entire arc of your story, you can write each scene in a way that advances the plot.
3. Choose a point of view
There are three primary points of view used in fiction writing. First, decide which kind of narration makes the most sense for your novella, and then stick to it.
Many stories are told in first-person perspective (using I or my) because it creates a powerful and personal connection with the character telling the story.
The second-person point of view (using you) is not very common in fiction, but it can be effective for certain tales.
The third-person perspective (using he, she, or they) gives an all-powerful narrator outside the story complete access to the characters’ lives and minds, so it’s a prevalent choice.
4. Develop a character arc
Most compelling stories involve a character arc where the protagonist (the main character) undergoes an emotional journey or transformation. Before you begin your novella, you will want to decide where your characters will end up (what they will learn, how they will change). Is this a story of triumph, revenge, courage, discovery, reward, or loss?
Use what you know about each characters’ personality to create a believable path for them. The stronger the character development (emotions, motivations, decisions, and reactions), the more readers will connect with the story.
5. Pick up the pace
A common mistake that writers make when writing their first novella is taking too long to reach the first major conflict. Unlike a novel, the novella does not give readers time to slowly gather clues about the characters and plot.
Try starting your story in medias res (in the middle of the action) to provide early pages more energy and hook your reader. Read through your first draft and see if any background descriptions or character behaviors feel repetitive. If so, delete them.
Then look for places to build suspense or use foreshadowing, where you hint at upcoming events through imagery, symbolism, or observations. Remember, symbolism is important in this shorter form of writing.
6. Use figurative language
A savvy writer knows when to keep the story moving with straightforward plot descriptions and when to add flourishes. If you realize you’ve been straightforwardly writing your novella and simply telling (rather than showing) the action, see if there is room for figurative language. Play with symbolism, metaphors, similes, personification, and hyperbole.
It may take a few drafts to ensure that these images and literary techniques strengthen your story rather than distract from it. So don’t be afraid to experiment. Using creative language can take your novella from bland to beautiful.
7. Avoid complicated subplots
Once you begin writing your novella, you may be tempted to introduce new subplots or side characters. Resist the urge, and remind yourself that every character or event needs to support the storytelling.
Is it part of the exposition (description), rising action (series of events that create tension), turning point or climax (moment of highest conflict), or resolution? Recurring flashbacks and tedious dialogue can complicate the story or slow things down. Your goal is to build a relationship with readers and create an immersive experience in a fairly condensed format, so there is no time for tangents.
8. Revise your drafts
Even the most experienced writers need editors. So after finishing a draft of your novella, allow time for readers you trust to review it and provide feedback. You can even give them a list of story elements to help focus their comments: strong opening/closing, character development, setting, plot conflicts, dialogue, tone, diction (word choice), and consistent verb tenses.
Receiving constructive criticism on creative projects is not easy for anyone, but it is essential to produce your best work and become a better writer.
9. Make a trade book
So you’ve written your first novella. Congratulations! That’s no small feat. The last step is to get it out to your audience.
We may be biased, but we think novellas are perfect for self-publishing. They are shorter, less expensive to produce, and an ideal way to try your hand at book design.
Download our free desktop software, BookWright, for everything you need to design and print your novella. Select trade books as your book format, then choose a book size, paper, and cover type to fit your project.
You can also use pro bookmaking tools like Adobe InDesign or Blurb’s PDF Uploader to set up your book. The next step is up to you! Will you sell your book online, share it with friends and family, or distribute it worldwide?
Want to learn more? Check out trade books to get started!