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.