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  • P. Barrera

What You’re Promising By Writing a Novella

by S.E. Jones (originally posted on I like analysing things. I don’t think there are 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 it 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 lose when you divert from accepted methods, you’ll be able to compensate for that loss and weigh whether the effect you’re going for is actually worth it.

Which is why when I said “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 around. Nor was it that useful. Here are a few answers I found: Short novels.

Well. That’s…true, yes, but not very useful. Shorter how? What have I sacrificed and what reason do I have 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–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 reader’s 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. 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 sparseness of a short story. Guest post contributed by S.E. Jones. S.E. is a writer and paramedic living in London. When not doing the above two things, she reads.

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