How To Write A Novella

I come from a TV news background in which I had to tell a (news) story in one-minute-thirty seconds every night for the 6 o’clock news, so novella writing comes easy to me. I ‘write tight.’ With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you a few novella-writing tips that work for me and hopefully might work for you, too:

-Start the story with a crisis. This serves two purposes. One, you hook the reader immediately from the first sentence, and two, it lets you start the story at a later plot point, and include what would have been the beginning events as back story. For instance, in my Victorian novella THE DISCIPLINARIAN (Secrets, Volume 15, Red Sage Publishing) my opening line is, “Clarissa, I’m sending you to The Disciplinarian.” Oooh. Can’t you almost hear the scary music playing in the background? What had Clarissa done to make her husband turn her over to such a nefarious-sounding person? How would poor Clarissa react to the news? While her husband is dragging Clarissa to The Disciplinarian’s waiting coach, that’s the time for you as an author to give the reader a little information on what brought these characters to this apparently dire state of affairs.

- Keep your characters, locations, and plot to a minimum. Remember, a novella is a simple story, simply told. In my novella THE BET (Secrets, Volume 27, Red Sage Publishing) the entire story takes place over one weekend at a Victorian country house. Besides the hero and heroine, I’ve included only one other character -- the heroine’s brother, who is the antagonist and the catalyst for the story. He sets the entire tale in motion when he manipulates the hero into an outrageous wager. THE BET has one setting, one major conflict, two main characters, and one antagonist. The perfect recipe for a novella.

- Include an absolute minimum of back story. Tell your readers only what they need to know to make them understand your characters’ motivations. For example, in THE DISCIPLINARIAN, my hero Jared, the shadowy legend of the title, has never failed to turn a difficult wife into a dutiful spouse -- but not in the way their husbands expect. Years ago, Jared’s sister had been beaten to death by her spouse, so Jared now feels an obligation to help other women avoid the same fate. Clarissa, in this story, is that woman. So you see how I’ve used a tiny bit of back story to explain Jared’s altruistic motivation. That’s all you need.

-Make every scene count. Every word of a novella should move the story forward, and even better, as an author you should try to end every scene with a hook, a crisis, or a disaster. Action is key. Danger is even better. You don’t want a reader to be able to put your story down!

- No subplots. Remember, in short fiction you’re limited by word count, so keep the focus on your big crisis.

Conflict is the soul of any story. The plot is your framework, but conflict is the magic that keeps a reader turning the pages. Conflict has two main components: internal and external, and both these components need to escalate quickly throughout a novella, building to a crisis at the Black Moment. In erotic novellas like the ones I write, the all-important sexual tension plays a big part.

Every romance, whether sweet or sexy, is ultimately about getting the hero and heroine to the ‘happily ever after’ or the ‘happy for now.’ In a novella, the best way to do that is to quickly throw your hero and heroine into an impossible situation (plot), and then keep them constantly in each other’s company while the sparks fly (conflict).

Here’s an example of external and internal conflict in my Roman novella CONQUEROR VANQUISHED:

In 52 B.C., Rome has just conquered Gaul…

Leonidas Danae Vorenus, commander of Rome’s prestigious Sixth legion, is ordered to establish a strategic outpost in Gaul after its surrender to Julius Caesar. But on the way to his new post, Leonidas is seriously wounded in an ambush. Only one person can save his life, and she’s his sworn enemy.

Solange is a healer. While she values every life, she’s loath to save one of the hated Romans who’ve just conquered her land. But under threat by Leonidas’ second-in-command, Valerian, that ‘if Leonidas dies, you die,’ she has no choice but to treat the injured commander.

However, the relationship between conqueror and conquered soon evolves into much more. Solange and Leo’s forced intimacy ignites an unexpected attraction, and prompts the two enemies to look beyond the reason for their hatred to explore the equally powerful emotion simmering underneath. 

So. As you can see, I’ve used one major conflict, two main characters, and one antagonist to create the ideal structure for a novella. Once you’ve learned the formula, the stories practically write themselves. Your job is simply to come up with an interesting idea!

What about you?  Ever written a novella?  Was it harder or easier for you than a full-length novel?
Leigh Court


Christine Ashworth said...

Ooh Leigh, great tips! I will be writing two novellas this year so will definitely keep these in mind.

BTW, I LOVED The Disciplinarian and The Bet! Awesome reads.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! I've never written either a novella or a short story, mainly becasue I didn't think I could do it.

I love you advice.

Christine London said...

You are one of my great inspirations, Leigh. Loved The Disciplinarian and how you focus on what is important to making a great read. Thanks for the updated tips! They helped immeasurably when I wrote Sunninghill Snow. They work!

Lynne Marshall said...

Hi Leigh!
This is great information, and I'm printing the blog out. I write category length, which is short enough, but to write novellas with all of the tension and conflict that you do, is nothing less than a gift!

Beverly Diehl said...

Thanks for this post. Novella length is something I *want* to do, just haven't started yet, though I have one outlined. These are some awesome tips.

Leigh Court said...

Thank you everyone for your feedback and kind words! I'm glad some of my tips resonated with you, and I hope some of them can help you in the future :)


Natasha Moore said...

I love writing novellas. Don't know whether I'd say they're harder or easier than a full-length novel, just different. Novellas have a tight focus that I often love. Novels are for a larger story.

Great tips :)

Laura Sheehan said...

good advice... I've never written a novella, but I've written and edited a lot of short fiction. I can't agree more how important it is to keep the structure simple! Keeping the number of characters to a minimum allows the reader to get to "know" the existing characters in much more detail. Same is true for the conflict: it's so much easier to flesh out the plot in a satisfying manner if you have the time (page space) to do it, so avoiding complicated twists and turns is really helpful. And I love your advice about starting with a crisis! It really helps jump right into the action.

Sam Beck said...

Talk about good timing! I am just about to try my hand at my first novella, working out the synopsis to send to my editor as we speak. Your insightful tips made me realize I need to rein the story in a bit, (okay, a lot). Thanks!!

Leigh Court said...

Thanks Natasha, Laura & Samanthe! If I've said anything with my post today that you can use, I'm very happy :)


Alyssa Kress said...

Many of your tips would work well for a full-length novel, too, I think. Great advice!

Amber Green said...

I like combining characters when they get too numerous.