Novellas -- "The disreputable banana republic." Stephen King
In the review game, I often get personalised requests to review books. Most of the time, they are novellas. Seems logical, since I write them exclusively, have read and studied the form extensively, and I am the resident expert peep here on the site. I am an advocate for the form, and while I love reviewing them, I am always surprised to find authors and reviewers alike inaccurate in their definitions and expectations of the genre. I have turned away many review requests simply because the book might have been novella length -- 17500 to 40000 words -- but it was not an actual novella. Oftentimes, the book was merely an underdeveloped novel, lacking the genre characteristics a novella is required to possess. So today, I wanted to talk a little about those particular genre characteristics in order to help authors, reviewers, and readers understand what a novella is, what they should be looking for, and what there is to appreciate in this beautiful yet underused art form.
Although invented in Italy in the middle-ages as a form of social satire, in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries writers took it upon themselves to take the novella and forge it into a bona fide literary genre of its own. One with its own very distinct structure, precepts, and rules. Since the Germans were the most active writers of the Novella at that time, it made perfect sense for them to define it, as well: “A novella is a fictional narrative of indeterminate length— generally 17500 to 40000 words by today’s modern standards—restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point, provoking a logical, but surprising end. Novella tend to contain a concrete symbol, which is the narration's steady point.”
What we look for in a novella is a concentrated focus on theme and character and an intense exploration of its thesis. The thesis, in itself, should be symbolically represented throughout the story. One can have multiple symbols, but there must be a symbolic aspect that illustrates the “dilemma” we are going to be presented with in the work. Think Aesop’s Fable and you are on the right track. So let’s break it down and take a look at the structure, precepts, and rules for a minute with respect to writing a novella accurately.
Thesis and Theme
Theme is the subject, and the thesis is the particular philosophy being argued with regard to the subject. Novellas tend to focus on a single suspenseful event, situation, or conflict. Most of the time, this is of the existential, philosophical, or theological variety. I strongly suggest to novella writers that their thesis be addressed early on, in the first chapter preferably. Don’t bludgeon your reader with the intent; it should be there, but just under the surface. Novellas are all about suggestion and the subtle joy of inference. How things are said and what is not said are critical in a novella. We have limited word count to work with here, so choosing the right words is paramount. Your intent should be clear and though-provoking but not overpowering -- quick and pointed.
Plotting and the Argument
I am not a big fan of deliberate plotting. A good story flows the way it should and ends when it should, but the concentrated focus of a novella dictates how it’s plotted to some degree, and writing the critical plot elements into scenes is the best way to accomplish the task. We don’t have a lot of room for meandering, and so I suggest the author refrain from veering off into a maze of subplots and back-stories. The scenes need to be intensely focused and the “theme” of each scene needs to directly argue for or against the main thesis. There must be a mix of conflict and resolution, internal and or external, which moves the characters along the appropriate arc, and which will eventually lead to the unexpected turning point. If you are going to use foreshadowing techniques, like I do, keep them subtle. The same holds true for expository moments, make sure they aren’t abrupt so as not to interrupt the flow of the story -- balance is key here, we want to show and tell ... Shoot for a heady mix of scene and narrative. You might find that novellas lean more towards narrative than scene, so your narrative areas should be just as engaging. The ebb and flow should engage the reader's intellect and their emotions.
Novellas, in general, tend to be more character-centric, a character study if you will, and so the characters in a novella should be finely-drawn: crafted with care and meticulous attention to detail. They must be extraordinary examples of humanity’s volatility. They must love, hate, and everything in between with ardour. Due to the length and thematic constraints, I generally advise novella writers to focus on one main character with the minor interactive characters limited to no more than 5. Why? Well, focus and intensity is extremely important, and we don’t want the story to read like a parade of caricatures. Limiting the arc to just one character allows for deeper development. Your main character needs to be the perfect embodiment of your thesis. Focus should be on their dominant traits and how those traits argue for or against the story’s philosophy. You must push the boundaries a bit and take those traits to their quintessential dimensions. Release them from all their mundane qualities and your main character will not only be more intriguing but more powerful. That power and intrigue equates to relatability and emotional relevance -- the all important psychological connection between the story and your reader. Thin characters cannot reflect. Keep that in mind. As far as transient characters go, have as many as you like, use them in any way you like, just be wary of the parade scenario and you will be fine, for they too must also argue for or against the thesis.
Should be muted. Again, we don’t have room for expansive pages of objective detail in a novella, so objective details need to be kept to a minimum. What we want in a novella is subjective detail. We want to do some scene setting, of course, and we want those settings to have tone and texture, but we want that tone and texture to come from within not from without. A novella should express not what the characters actually see, but how they see it, how they feel it, taste it, hear it, and more importantly how they see it emotionally. How a character relates to their world in a novella is a direct reflection of your thesis. It ties the characters to the thesis and unifies the elements of the story. Unnecessary elements diminish the intensity of a novella, so as the old saying goes: If it isn’t the story, get rid of it. The storyline should be taut even if the prose is romantic, dreamy, poetic, satirical, or otherwise. Whatever your style, just keep it uncluttered.
When I review a novella, the concrete symbol is the second thing I look for after the thesis. I expect to find it, and it had better be there. If there is more than one, all the better, but don’t go nuts about it. Here are a few from my favourite novellas:
Shawshank Redemption -- The rock hammer
Story of the Eye -- Eggs.
Brokeback Mountain -- The Mountain itself.
In my own story The Thin Wall -- The Blade from the Painting.
Hellraiser “The Hellbound Heart” -- The Puzzle Box.
I am Legend -- The Blood or rather virally infected blood.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll -- The Potion.
Normally in the course of writing the novella, the symbolic aspects will just appear subconsciously, and so we don’t have to worry about it too much. However, for further reading I always suggest Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols. In a novella, the symbol is the embodiment of the theme and the thesis, which ultimately are the driving forces of the story.
Ah the end. Our unexpected turning point should provoke a logical but surprising end. It’s difficult to surprise these days. I know that, but we should try to do our very best to stay away from cliché endings, and surprises are easier if we keep some things concealed. However, even if the ending is not particularly surprising, it needs to be logical within the context of the story. The concluding chapter should be convincing. It’s the last chance you will have to show the courage of your convictions; it’s the last chance you will have to argue for your thesis, so do it well.
Here is a short list of some of my favourite novellas:
Animal Farm (1945) George Orwell
Anthem (1938) Ayn Rand
The Bear (1941) William Faulkner
The Bicentennial Man (1976) Isaac Asimov
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) Truman Capote
A Christmas Carol (1843) Charles Dickens
Death in Venice (1913) Thomas Mann
The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) Leo Tolstoy
The Hellbound Heart (1984) Clive Barker
Heart of Darkness (1902) Joseph Conrad
I Am Legend (1954) Richard Matheson
Legends of the Fall (1977) Jim Harrison
The Metamorphosis (1915) Franz Kafka
The Mist (1980) Stephen King -- I love all King’s Novellas: Shawshank Redemption is my absolute Favourite though.
Of Mice and Men (1937) John Steinbeck
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) Ernest Hemingway
A River Runs Through It (1976) Norman Maclean
Seize the Day (1956) Saul Bellow
The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931) H. P. Lovecraft -- Love all his work.
The Story of The Eye (1928) Georges Bataille -- Love all his novellas.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Robert Louis Stevenson
The Stranger (1942) Albert Camus
The War of the Worlds (1898) H.G. Wells
Young Zaphod Plays it Safe (1986) Douglas Adams
Cheryl Anne Gardner