What is a Novella? The Art of Concise Storytelling.

young woman planning her novella

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

When it comes to fiction, great stories can be minuscule (legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote a powerful six-word story to win a bet) or massive (authors like Marcel Proust published novels that top the one million-word mark).

In between those two extremes lies an intriguing format that allows authors to stretch their creativity but keep things more focused than a full-length novel: the novella.

What is a novella?

Writer’s Digest defines a novella as a “short novel or long short story” that’s normally between 15,000 and 40,000 words — though exact word counts vary depending on who you ask. Famous novellas include George Orwell’s Animal Farm and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

According to Britannica, the novella developed as literary format in Italy in the Middle Ages, and writers like Giovanni Boccaccio helped develop the novella “into a psychologically subtle and highly structured short tale” that has since been embraced by countless authors in many genres.

Characteristics of a novella

The main thing that differentiates a novella from other literary formats is story length — longer than a short story and shorter than a novel — but other qualities make the novella stand out. Novellas often adhere to a firm narrative structure, as opposed to stories that could be more circuitous or rambling. They also tend to highlight the development of a character, or the plot, in a way that’s highly focused.

Novellas are often quickly paced and highlight a small number of themes or ideas in order to explore them adequately within a short word count. The result? Novellas can often be punchy, powerful, and ingenious in how they convey a lot of emotion and meaning within a limited amount of space.

Difference between a novella vs. short story vs. novel

What differentiates one story form from another?

Length and word count

Short stories are the most compact, usually coming in at 20,000 words or less. Novellas hold the center with word counts normally in the 20,000-50,000 range. Full-length novels are generally over 50,000 words.

Narrative complexity

Since short stories are reasonably brief, they tend to be simpler when it comes to plot and character development, while novellas feature more intricate narratives and deeper evolution of plot and characters alike. Novels give you the most extensive palette for plots and subplots along with deep development of the inner and outer worlds in which characters live.

Scope and focus

When you read a short story, you’re normally getting a snapshot of a contained incident or experience, a small but illuminating peek into a compelling emotion or transformation within the central character(s). Novellas broaden the reader’s viewpoint; though they often focus on a small set of themes or story lines, they can dig deeper into the evolution of the plot and characters. In a full-length novel, multiple characters, narrative paths, and intertwining themes can all flourish.

Pacing

Short stories are, well… short, so they tend to focus on actions and their immediate echoes and go by quickly. The novella form finds parity between going deep with characters and story lines while not getting invested in lengthy tangents. With novels, the pacing and format can vary, with space for both high-octane moments and slower, more patient development.

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Novellas, just like novels and short stories, run a gamut of genres.

Historical novellas

Whether you’re exploring ancient Mesopotamia, Marcos-era Philippines, or the American wild west, historical fiction can delight readers of all sorts.

Romantic novellas

Heaving bosoms, whispered passions, forbidden but irresistible attraction — romantic fiction novellas won’t appeal to all readers, but those who are into them can become your lifelong fans.

Mystery and thriller novellas

Readers love an intriguing, adventurous puzzle — and the novella is a perfect template in which to create one.

Science fiction and fantasy novellas

You don’t have to craft something as long as The Lord of the Rings to dive into deep world-building. See how much creativity you can pour into the novella format and bring your dragons, robots, and aliens to life.

Biographical and autobiographical novellas

Hard reality can be a great inspiration. Through a biography or memoir, you can tell the story of people who move you in some way — or look in the mirror and start telling your own.

Comedic novellas

Novellas can be heavy or hilarious. Don’t hesitate to get your audience laughing hysterically as you explore this format.

Coming-of-age novellas

We all change as we get older, and sometimes those changes are more momentous than others. Explore this universal dynamic in your own novella.

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic novellas

Viruses spread. Electricity fails. Asteroids fall. The dead rise again. When chaos and catastrophe happen, good stories abound. See which niche of human nature you want to explore in your novella — then make it come to life.

How do you write a novella?

In many ways, writing a novella is similar to writing the shortest short story or the lengthiest novel — in the end, your job is to tell a good tale. If you care about your characters and what they’re going through, invest yourself in telling about that journey in a clear and artful manner, and take the time you need to craft something that you feel is top quality, you’ll end up with a novella you’ll be proud of.

How do you publish a novella?

Once you have your story sculpted and your manuscript fleshed out, it’s time to think about sharing your work with the world — but not before it’s up to industry and reader standards. Start with BookBaby’s editing services; then, when it’s time to get your book published and distributed, BookBaby’s Complete Self-Publishing Package is all you need.

The Six-Month Book Publishing Plan

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What’s the difference between a Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography?
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