The Novella – What is it, and It’s Structure

Not always needed to build a house, but definitely  useful

I like analysing things. I don’t think there’s any particular rules that have to be followed in fiction, but I think understanding the effect things have on the reader is very useful. I think understanding that promises are made to the reader, that satisfaction is sought, and that particular things deliver satisfaction, is very useful.

I don’t think that you have to copy all these techniques, or always write the same way. I just think that if you understand what you *loose* when you divert from accepted wisdom, you’re both able to compensate for that loss, and to weigh up whether the effect you’re going for is actually worth it.

Which is why, when I was all “I’d like to write a novella”, I went to trusty google, and typed in “structure of a novella.”

Trusty google was not so trusty this time round. Nor was it that useful. Here are a couple of answers I got:

  • Short novels.

Well. That’s… true, yes, but not very useful. Shorter how? What have I sacrificed and for what reason to make it shorter?

  • Like a full length story but with less subplots, less characters.

Again, this is a true statement. But how many characters? How many subplots? When do they end? I’m still not learning much here.

  • Longer than a short story, shorter than a novel.

Well. This is just about word count.

As mentioned before, I have no idea on how novellas work. But I do think I have a reasonably good idea on how short stories and novels work. So I had a look at the above statements, and I decided to expand on them.

The easiest definition for novellas is a word count. While that might seem the most unhelpful answer, it is actually the most helpful one. As I’ve mentioned before, the space in which you have to tell a story influences what the reader wants from it. Spend too many words with a character and a plot, and people are going to want a resolution, they’re going to want everything wrapped up. The less words you have, the more you can get away with a lack of resolution (readers are just interested in what happens – so the climax – not necessarily how everyone settles down afterwards). Even shorter and you can get away with just implying a story (“Baby shoes, for sale, never worn” does not have characters, acts, plot or context. It sure implies all of that though).

So back to novellas. They are, as helpfully pointed out by my google-fu, shorted than a novel, but longer than a short story. This means something. The longer a story goes, the more you need to resolve to the readers satisfaction. You can’t just stop at the climax and be done with it. But in a similar bent, the shorter a story is, the more you can imply.

So with the world-count of a novella, you are promising things to a reader. You’re promising that the important things won’t be implied – character growth, the resolution of the plot, how things settle afterwards. You’re promising that there will be more than one character, more than one type of complication. (A singular complication normally has a restricted word count. And complications and the number of characters are implicitly tied).

What you’re not promising is: Backstory. Massive amounts of context and world building. A huge amount of time spent tying up the loose ends after the climax. These are the things you can avoid.

As to the subplots – it depends on how many characters you have, how many conflicts there are. The two are linked – characters that do not add new conflict are either the instruments of other characters, or set pieces. With length you’re implying more than one conflict (external as well as internal conflict, maybe some relational conflict in there as well). As such you need more than one or two characters. Not too many though, or people will start expecting their stories to be at least partially told.

So yes, a novella is all of what google told me it was. I think the easiest way to go about it would be to use the structural tools of a novel, but the implications and the spareness of a short story. In the next post I’ll attempt that.

Picture taken from Flickr, under creative commons, attributed to Jonas Bengtsson


12 thoughts on “The Novella – What is it, and It’s Structure

  1. theryanlanz says:

    This is a wonderful article about novellas. Do you mind if I feature this on my blog, A Writer’s Path (6,100 subscribers)? I usually have on guest posts from various authors 1-2 times a week. I would, of course, announce credit to you and include a link where my readers can find your blog and check out your other articles. Before I even considered, I wanted to ask you first.


    • sejoness says:

      Yeah, that’s fine. If you could just link to where it is on your blog here after doing so, so people can follow the trail back and forth, that would be lovely 🙂


      • theryanlanz says:

        It’s scheduled for Oct. 28th. I don’t have the link yet as it’s not posted, but it’ll be at the top of for three days. As usual, it includes the normal credit/bio/link back to your blog.

        I have a short list of bloggers that I occasionally pull guest articles from. I always let them know when I schedule something. Do you mind an ongoing permission for that, or do you prefer this being a one time thing?

      • sejoness says:

        You’re welcome to take some more if you want. I was wondering though – I’ve looked at your blog and what you do sometimes is you display the first part on your blog and link back to the contributors blog for people to read the rest. Could you do that with my post?

      • theryanlanz says:

        Currently, there are no posts with that format. I used to, and only for a brief period, but it felt too much like a teaser to my readers, so I did away with those. All posts from guest posters are in the full format now. No worries either way, but knowing that, would you still like to be on the short list?

  2. ajwriter2014 says:

    Very good post. This is one thing I absolutely adore about the ebook revolution: it’s made the novella a viable format again. In the old days, there just wasn’t enough of a profit margin to persuade a publisher to print and try to sell a novella. Now, with ebooks, there is no cost of printing and transporting and all that stuff that eats profits, so publishers are willing to look at novellas again.

    • sejoness says:

      It’s especially interesting if you look at a lot of the original SFF stuff – a lot of the classics are novella size. I think you end up concentrating more on showing the important things, and imply everything else when there’s a novella. It’s why a lot of the world building stuff isn’t actually *there* in those novels, and also why a lot of them were much more succinct in their exploration of theme

  3. chexgilson says:

    I write a lot of novellas. It’s my favorite word count length and I just sort of fell into it. I’ve never consciously analyzed the structure, I just sort of do it intuitively.

    • sejoness says:

      I think the analysis came from how badly I initially struggled with shorts – I was curious what effect the increased word count would do. That being said, it’s quite flexible. Enough to get into things, but no need to add extra characters/subplots if you don’t want to. There’s more world building space than in shorts too, which I quite like.

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