Fit-in-the-hand Perfect! (Photo credit: Robert Burdock)
About a year ago, I got a bee in my bonnet: I was going to write a novella. I’ve written a couple dozen short stories and five novels, but I’ve never attempted the oft-marginalized, in-between story form known as the novella. I was a fan of the form, certainly—some of my favorite works by Stephen King are his novellas (The Mist, The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), and one of my favorite ‘novels’—Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—is, in fact, a 30,000 word novella. So, why shouldn’t I give it a go, I asked myself. It’s a respectable and challenging literary form (in the words of Ian McEwan, “the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant”—the novel); it won’t be as long or involved as a novel would be; but it would give me more room to move in than a short story might (full disclosure: I love reading short stories, but I find drumming up short story ideas and writing short stories to be a kind of torture. I mean, really, why would anyone who wrote fiction want to be so… so… brief?). As I do when undertaking any new literary foray, I took it upon myself to try and do some research to see just what other writers had to say about novellas—their pitfalls, things to remember when tackling them, how to develop and approach them, things to aspire to. But, I ran into a small problem…
Very little has been written on how to write a novella.
So, what is a novella?
Perhaps, before we go on, we should take a moment to define just what a novella is (for those of you not in the know). While the demarcations are fuzzy, the general consensus is that a novella is a work of prose fiction that is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. While everyone has their favored numbers, the general consensus suggests that a novella seems to be between 15,000 and 50,000 words (that’s quite a range, when you think about it). While modern publishing tends to discount and ignore the novella because the costs of printing are often not worth the scant sales such a brief work might yield (unless it’s part of a collection by a writer who already has a strong following), novellas were, in the 19th and early 20th century, an important part of any writer’s oeuvre: a work that, in the words of the bestseller Dan Simmons, “allows the writer—and, with luck, the reader—to breathe deeply of character, setting, theme, and unrushed narrative without the added pollutants of subplot, ancillary characters, chapter breaks, and the inevitable digressions which cloud the atmosphere of all but the most perfect of novels.” (I really couldn’t have said it better.)
In the days when most fiction was published in magazines, the novella was a sought-after writer’s bread-and-butter, short enough to be featured in a single issue—or serialized in two or three—but long enough to make readers feel they were getting ample bang for their buck. To sweeten the deal, the form was equally popular in both high-brow publications (‘the slicks’) and low-brow (‘the pulps’). Some of our most famous and enduring literary works are novellas, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (about 30,000 words) to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (43,000 words) to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular lengthy work featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles (okay, Hound is 60,000 words, which is technically outside the limits I set forth above; still, 60,000 words is a pretty short novel, and some have claimed that novellas actually top out at70,000 words, so I’m going with it as an example). Other famous novellas include James Joyce’s The Dead (16,000 words), Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (22,000 words), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (26,000 words), John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (both about 30,000 words).
What do we know about novellas?
So, we’ve got a respectable form practiced by everyone who’s anyone on the literary landscape, from old guard masters like Henry James to fantastically popular modern writers like Stephen King (who ironically refers to the novella as “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic”). June is, apparently, National Novella Month (who knew?). If the novella is so damned popular among writers, why, then, is there such a dearth of material concerned with how to write them? Writers from Edgar Allan Poe to John Gardner have opined on the virtues of clarity, economy and unity of effect when composing a short story; and writers from E. M. Forster to Walter Mosley have offered us book-length works about how to construct and then beautify the complex architecture of a novel. Why hasn’t anyone taken the time to address the no-less particular—if less-often practiced—discipline that is the novella? Is it simply because no rules or prevailing theories exist? Or could it be that great writers simply don’t know what makes the puzzling but piquant form that is the novella so attractive when undertaken, or so effective when successful? Could it be that, since it is an intermediary form, the novella is something of a mystery? A mixed bag necessitating the clarity, economy, and unity of effect of the short story, couched in the load-bearing architecture and craftsmanlike accentuation of the novel?
That could be it. But that doesn’t help me. I’m a conscientious writer who doesn’t undertake anything until I’ve done my homework first. How could I even attempt a novella (I bemoaned) without first considering some prevailing theory on the hows and whys of its composition? (It could be argued that I’m just being too fussy and using a dearth of research as an excuse to avoid starting. I’m just going to ignore that suggestion in my best passive-aggressive fashion and carry on…)
Alas, all the bemoaning in the world—coupled with lots of internet searches—yielded me little of value aside from a number of blogs and essays either praising the form, or celebrating its current vogue status (writers continue to work in the milieu, and one small press publisher—Melville House Books—has an entire line dedicated to classic and contemporary novellas). But, as for how to’s? Very few in sight.
So, in the tradition of any number of do-it-yourselfers, I decided that if notes and theories on the composition of the novella didn’t exist, I’d just create my own. Below, then, is what I offer: what I’ve gleaned about the writing of a novella, based upon ample reading, some practice, and some interdisciplinary considerations. Take this primer for what it is, and feel free to comment upon or add to it.
It Might Be a Novella If…
The first question to answer is this: does the story I envision fit the novella format? There’s no easy answer to that. Admittedly, you might only start to think you’ve got a novella on your hands once you’ve begun what you thought was a short story and found that it keeps growing, and growing, and growing…
But, nonetheless, there might be some indicators that what you’re writing (or what you’d like to write) is suited to the novella form. Consider:
• Does the story have between three to five settings, or set-pieces (for instance: the sheriff finds that the outlaw escaped from the county jail; he follows the outlaw into the wilderness; they finally have a showdown in a box canyon)? A short story can’t always support so many, and a novel can support far more. Thus, if what you’re envisioning falls in this range, you might have a novella on your hands.
• Does your story involve a limited cast of characters? Say, three major speaking roles and only a handful of others to add some color?
• Is the emotional or psychological journey of a certain character at the heart of the story? Is your story, in the words of English professor Warren Carriou, “concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere”? (To revisit my example with the sheriff—does the sheriff’s pursuit of the escaped fugitive and final showdown with him bring about some sea change in the sheriff’s self-image or worldview?)
• Does your tale require a slow burn to effectively reach its climax? A slow burn that won’t work in the cramped confines of a short story, but that might bog over the course of a novel? A slow-burn tale of suspense with a powerful climax—think Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows or Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—is ideal for the novella form.
• Is your tale best understood as an oral history? Put another way: lots of short stories and novels are told from the first person POV, with the vague understanding that the narrator is telling us about something that happened to them in the past. I’ve found, though, that the novella is particularly inclined toward this conceit: the tale told by a narrator who is, themselves, a character in the story, said tale being long enough to unfold at a luxurious pace, but short enough to unfold in one sitting. Thus, many novellas have this sense of being oral histories: someone’s reminiscence of an important episode in their lives. While this is not a requirement, I would suggest that a tale that seems to cry out for such treatment might, in essence, be crying out to be born as a novella.
Now that you’ve decided that your tale is a novella, we move on to more technical considerations, such as—
One of the most particular requirements of the novella is length. The novella falls within a broad but fairly well established range of word counts. It’s definitely longer than a short story, and it’s definitely shorter than a novel. When dealing with finite space, it behooves one to keep the plot focused, the subplots minimal (or nonexistent), and the dramatis personae limited. In this regard, one could see writing a novella as not dissimilar to writing a screenplay: you’ve only got about 120 pages of heavily formatted prose to work with in a screenplay, so you’ve got to make sure that every line of dialogue, every slug line of action or description, every scene and every set piece supports and encourages the momentum of the story. There is no room for long digressions about cetology or the whaling industry (Herman Melville!), no excuse for virtuoso run-on sentences that carry on for pages and pages (William Faulkner!), and limited narrative resources, making large, sprawling casts of characters hideously impractical (Leo Tolstoy!). No, like the screenplay, the novella should be guided by a single problem or central conflict; should remain focused on a small, manageable cast of characters; and should, at the best of times, adhere to the dramatic unities of a brief timeline and limited settings. Which brings me to—
—questions of construction! Screenwriter William Goldman once said that in screenwriting, structure is everything. I would argue that the same could be said of a novella. Whereas a short story can simply show us a slice of life, and a novel can sprawl about in a hundred directions across decades of story time, a novella should probably have a very definite through-line that unfolds in a very tight, sturdily-constructed narrative space.
A screenwriter’s trick that I’ve long utilized when building story architecture is this: boil down the main thrust of the story into four simple statements.
• Who is the protagonist?
• What do they want?
• Who/what opposes them?
• What happens if they fail to get what they want?
Even if you eschew writing a formal outline, answering those questions and keeping them before you like a compass and map will help guide you through the wilderness that is your in-progress story.
If you want to go further, you might want to look closely at dramatic structures (three act or five act), or perhaps metanarratives like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to help you structure your novella before writing it. An especially effective form that might be helpful is Drew Snyder’s Save the Cat! beatsheet, which was designed for screenwriters but which offers a narrative skeleton perfectly applicable to a tightly-plotted work of fiction like a novella. No matter what form you want to employ to help you in the planning stages, I would argue that the exigencies of finite space and narrative structure demand some sort of outlining before the writing begins.
Unity of effect
Beyond issues of space and architecture lie fuzzier atmospheric considerations, such as unity of effect. This is a concept first articulated by Poe, in his The Poetic Principle. Therein, the great master insisted that a short story or tale is most effective when it can be read in one sitting, and thus impart a unity of effect upon its reader: a concentrated feeling, supported by the tale’s diction, syntax, atmospherics, and subject matter. While a novella may or may not be readable in a single sitting, it will be consumed over a shorter timespan than a novel, and thus, unity of effect should be considered. Per Ian McEwan, “the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focused on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.”
So, are you setting out to thrill the reader? To titillate? To oppress or horrify? To urge laughter or tears? While a novel can wring all these feelings and more from their readers, your novella will probably be more effective and pack more punch if it goes for just one overall effect and really sticks to it. When revising, take great care that every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every scene supports that single feeling. Want to make sure you stay focused? Write that feeling you’re after—in a single word—at the top of your outline. Horror! Pity! Terror! Irony! Revelation!
Whatever it is, keep it foremost in your mind as you compose and then rewrite.
Okay, I’ve Got a Novella. Now What?
Well, that’s entirely up to you. Chances are, no major publisher will care a whit for your intermediate-length work of genius because, as both Dan Simmons and Stephen King pointed out in their most famous novella collections (Simmons’s Lovedeath and King’s Different Seasons), publishers hate novellas, even from established writers. Sure, sure, literary lights like Ian McEwan and Denis Johnson occasionally get to publish a stand-alone novella, but generally, you’re S.O.L. unless you’ve got enough novellas to fill a book-length manuscript, or unless your name is Stephen King and people will gladly buy copies of your grocery list.
But all is not lost. In the brave new world of e-books and self-publishing, it’s never been easier to make your novella available for mass consumption at almost no cost to yourself, and very reasonable cost to your potential fan base (99 cents seems to be the magic number when it comes to pricing novellas). Thus, the novella is to writing and publishing what the self-pressed single or EP was to the indie rock scene: a handy way to reach potential fans, to spread the word on your literary intentions, and to test the mettle of your product in a cutthroat marketplace. You may not make enough from the sales of your self-published novella to buy a pizza, but isn’t it worth it if you manage to attract a few more fans, or glean some feedback as to what worked and what didn’t about your not-so-magnum opus?
So, what are you waiting for? We finally live in an age where a novella need not lie helplessly in a drawer for want of a venue, and tackling the form is a great way to put your writing through its paces and use all the narrative tricks and tools at your disposal. Getting writing, already!
(And if you’re still wondering what ever became of the novella I wanted to write—well, I abandoned the first but finished a second. It’s mellowing, awaiting a rewrite as we speak. Perhaps, when I dive back in to polish it, we can revisit the novella again and talk about some of the finer points of mastering this most mercurial of literary forms…)