Studying the novella

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of novellas. I’ve read six in a row, all of them historical and contemporary romances. I’m trying to absorb and understand the structure of a novella because eventually I’d like to write one myself. Two, actually. I’ve started one–I have the first few scenes written and the rest roughly outlined–and I have another character I know I want to write a novella about just because I think he deserves a happy ending.

Right now I don’t have the time to complete either novella, because I’m busy with other work, but it’s a good time to be studying the form so that when I do have the time, I’ll have the skills.

However, my impression about novellas so far is that it’s the wild, wild west out there. When it comes to writing a novel, if you want a road map–and I really think it’s a good idea to use one–you can turn to three-act structure. It’s a proven method for producing well-paced novels with appropriate rises and falls of tension. But what structure does one use for a novella? Where’s the road map for that?

If you want to read a well-structured novella, try one by Courtney Milan. I think she handles the format better than any other author I’ve found (not that my reading of this format has been in any way comprehensive; I’m just getting started).

A common problem I found in novellas (not by Courtney) was that the conflict was resolved by the hero or heroine changing his or her mind. That is, the protagonist was resisting the romance because of some personal demon, and then for no particular reason, he or she has a change of heart, yay, happy ending, resolution. I found those novellas unsatisfying. I know word count is a limiting factor, but there’s got to be a reason for the change of heart! Other problems were issues I encounter sometimes in novel-length work and were probably not specific to the format (e.g., weak conflict, unlikeable hero or heroine).

One thing I noticed about the novellas was that nearly all of them involved a hero and heroine that were reuniting after having known one another in the past. This seems to be a handy novella shortcut for romances. If they’ve known each other previously, one can skip all the getting-to-know-you scenes and avoid the realism problem of convincing the reader that two characters have fallen deeply in love, enough to get married, in just 20-40k words of scene time.

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11 Responses to Studying the novella

  1. Steve says:

    Try reading some of Alice Munro’s longer stuff. She’s never produced a novel–everything she’s written has been between short story and novella length–and she’s a master of the form. But she’s not romance; she’s lit-fic. Don’t know if you like that or not. For my money, she’s the best short fiction writer working today.

  2. I’m about 50 pgs into writing a novella, which I have outlined, but your post is making me rethink my conflict. I guess I had originally contrasted novels and novellas it in my head like this: A novel, as I write them, at least, has a villain and bad-guy conflict as well as conflict b/w hero and heroine that is character/goal driven. More layers of conflict over all. At this point my new novella is only the two characters’ internal conflicts and the relationship – how to get them out of their comfort zones, they have different racial backgrounds, educations, and financial status, hero is trying to figure out what to do with himself after leaving military, etc. But I think maybe I should go back to the drawing board and see if there is some outside thing they need to overcome together. Wonder if a really bad winter storm while they drive cross country counts? (It’s a holiday coming home story).

    • Amy Raby says:

      I don’t think I’m enough of an expert on the form yet to analyze your story. And I have yet to even write a novella of my own! But I do feel that a novella needs plot. It may not need a villain, but it can’t be all internal. Courtney Milan’s novellas do a good job with that. They don’t have a lot of external conflict, but they do have plot.

  3. Jessi Gage says:

    I read a few short stories here and there, usually in antholopgies I buy to support authors I already know, and then I end up discovering (or knowing to avoid) a new author. I like them for the brief escape, but the author really has to hook me to make me want to go on a short journey when I have so many novels on my TBR list competing with their attention.

    • Amy Raby says:

      It was interesting reading reviews of some of the anthologies–some readers said, “I bought this for X author, and I only read X author’s story.” Or they read them all but only liked X author’s story. It seems clear that many times an anthology has one author pulling the sales, and several lesser-known authors that the publisher hopes will pick up new readers, in which case for the lesser-known authors, the novella is promotional in nature. Which means those lesser-known authors need to really knock it out of the park. They can’t afford to slap something together because if they do a poor job on the novella, they could actually drive readers away from their (maybe better?) novels.

  4. Amy, I’m so glad you’re covering this topic. Compared to novels and short stories, I’ve seen very little on the structure of a novella. I honestly hadn’t considered it as having a unique structure, but thought of it more like a more streamlined, simplified version of a novel’s structure. But I honestly rarely read novellas.

    Please, do share any other insights you find on the subject.

  5. Jill Archer says:

    Hi Amy, I agree with Laura. I’m also interested in novella structure (although I don’t think I could carve out time to read them right now so good for you!) I love to challenge myself with new writing forms and it seems natural for a novelist to turn to novellas at some point. Its tight word count requirements would be a good writing exercise for me. And it would probably be a good way to test drive a new project. Keep us posted about any other good examples. Great post!

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