by Melissa Tagg
I wrote my first novella in 2014…and, true story, I had noooo clue what I was doing! I’d published three novels at the time. I’d written short stories in college. But nothing in-between.
Since then, though, I’ve written four more novellas and they’ve become some of my very favorite writing projects.
I’ve also been intentional about reading more novellas, too. Prior to writing my own, I hadn’t read more than a handful. But lately, especially during busy seasons, I’ve enjoyed sinking into shorter books.
But here’s the thing with novellas: Some of them feel like full, complete stories and some of them, well, don’t. Through both writing and reading novellas, I’ve picked up a few tips for crafting novellas that feel as satisfying as full-length novels:
- Character counts…like, a lot!
To me, what makes or breaks a novella—or any story, really—is character depth. I’ve read a few novellas where plenty happens in the story, but I still walk away thinking, huh, that didn’t do much for me. And every time, it’s because the characters felt wooden, distant. They might’ve had a clear surface goal in the story, but I didn’t know anything about their dreams or fears. I didn’t get a feel for a dark moment in their past that shaped who they are today. Thus, the stuff that happened in the story felt a little less weighty and significant.
Just like we do when we’re writing 85,000-word novels, characters in novellas need to be fully fleshed out. When I feel like my own novella is lacking the emotional heft I want, it’s almost always because I’m packing the story with plot while sacrificing character. That’s when I go back and shave off a plot point in favor of expanding my character depth.
- We still need a sense of place.
I read a novella recently and while much of it was fun and cute, I realized at the end that it could’ve taken place anywhere. Nothing about the storyworld resonated.
“But, Melissa!” you say. “There’s not space in a novella to wax eloquent on storyworld.” So true. But here’s the thing: We don’t need always need a panoramic view of your town or your character’s every surrounding. What we need are specific details that carry emotional weight. Is your character in a kitchen? We don’t necessarily need the entire blueprint of the room. Maybe all we need to see is a coffee mug with a quirky quote on it…or a calendar with a date crossed out by a menacing red X…or a table hand-crafted by the hero…all things that pull double-duty by both grounding us in the scene and giving us insight into your character.
Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to setting is making sure to place us in a new space in most scenes. By doing that, you give the reader a sense of movement that will, in place of the multiple plot points and/or sub-plots of a longer story, make this shorter story feel richer and fuller. Even if your entire novella is set in one house, you can move us from room to room, inside to outside, or even get creative and take us up to a rooftop or down to a basement.
- What do you want to make your reader feel?
This is a question I’m constantly returning to when writing novellas. It can be so tempting to throw in a sub-plot just for the sake of expanding the story…or attempt to pack in extra side characters…or force a moral that isn’t natural. That’s when I have to stop writing and step back and think, “Wait, Melissa. What is it I actually want my readers to feel as they’re reading this?” In my case, as a writer of romantic novellas, it’s not about mystifying the reader with a twisty plot or convicting them with a lesson.
It’s about making them feel warm and swoony. It’s about making them laugh one minute and sigh in romantic happiness the next. And maybe, if I’ve done my job well, it’s about lighting a spiritual spark and trusting God and the reader to take it from there.
Bonus tip for the romance writers: You don’t need to get your characters down a church aisle! As a reader, the novellas that frustrate me most are the ones where a man and woman don’t even know each other at the beginning of the story…and 30,000 words later they’re saying their “I do’s.” Not that it can’t be done well. But in general, consider making your end goal a simple “I love you” or even “I like you a whole lot and should we consider dating or something?” 😉
Melissa Tagg is the author of the Walker Family series, Where Love Begins series and the Enchanted Christmas Collection. She’s a former reporter, current nonprofit grant writer and total Iowa girl. Her 2017 release, All This Time, was a Romantic Times 4.5-Star TOP PICK. Melissa loves connecting with readers at www.melissatagg.com.