How to Write a Novella by Suzanne D. Williams

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I have made my writing career on novellas and short stories. By definition, this is any book less than 40,000 words. To date, I have seventy in publication written in a four year time span. So to say I know how to write one is putting it mildly.

I recently read the words of another author who prefers to write novellas. This author described the antipathy in modern publishing companies toward anything of less than 60,000 words and also the destruction of his story when he tried to make it longer than it really should be. I’ve experienced both mindsets. Most promo sites require a book to be full length. Many readers leave negative reviews based strictly on story size and not quality of writing.

But the one thing from the article that stuck with me the most was this – the author said the appeal for him was starting the book at the beginning of a flight and ending it when you landed. I’ve only flown a few times, but I like that idea, that, as a reader, I can dip into my imagination and leave satisfied in such a short period of time.

As an author, I also like knowing there isn’t far to go from the beginning to the end in writing. However, to make a novella truly worthwhile, there are a few tips I can offer to writing one successfully.

A. Start with action, preferably mid-story.

Don’t work up to the action. Begin with it. The main character has the gun is about to fire it. The girl meets the boy by tripping over his shoes. In a novella, that first chapter should start at a key moment and end at a key moment. You have no time to dawdle.

You’re not writing an entire epic of the character’s life, but a single moment in it. Think of a personal story, say the office Christmas party. If you were telling that to a friend, you wouldn’t start with your earliest childhood memory, but perhaps walking in the door. You’d end it at a satisfying point in the evening as well. Pick a good ending and forget what might happen to the character once he goes home.

This isn’t to say you don’t need to tie up all your loose ends. You do. But the reader must assume there was life before that story and life after it.

B. Avoid mindless descriptions and backstory. Avoid lengthy dialogue.

Make your words count. You can’t run on and on about the size of the estate, the style of dress, or have pages and pages of dialogue not related to the plot. Ask yourself what matters the most and cut away the frills and the lace.

For instance: John notices April’s dress because it’s too short. There’s no need to have April’s thoughts on why she picked out the dress, that her mother gave it to her on her sixteenth birthday, that she picked it over another dress she liked better. None of that matters unless the dress is the point of the story. If I want the reader to know what he thinks about the dress, then I have him notice the dress and move on to the main point of the scene.

This idea also works with dialogue. Write well. Put thought into what the characters say, but don’t use needless space discussing things that don’t advance the plot. Which brings me to point C.

C. Write ONLY the scenes that advance the plot.

There are no visits to Mom’s house for cake unless something important happens with the cake or Mom is going to give some important word of advice while they eat the cake. Just to include a scene to add word count will detract from the story itself.

My biggest pet peeve with longer books are scenes that are there as filler. The importance of the story, the impact, should always be that it’s well written, not how long or short it is. I’ve read long books that were awesome and short stories that blew me away. LENGTH IS NEVER A DETERMINING FACTOR AS TO QUALITY … unless the length is incorrect for the story itself.

A well-written novella will cover everything the plot needs to satisfy the reader without adding too much in or taking too much away.

D. Limit the number of characters to four or five (max), but two or three is better.

Having fewer characters is almost a must. I usually have the two main characters (John and April), a best friend, and maybe a parental figure. That’s it. Everyone else either isn’t named (the grocer, the boss, a woman in the store) or has only a first name, usually something generic and forgettable.

And I introduce them in separate scenes, never all at once, and in the order of importance in the story. For instance, the best friend is going to be in more scenes than any other supporting character, then she is introduced first. If Mom only gets one scene, she can come in later.

In conclusion.

Novellas are a GREAT way to get started writing and, for someone not used to writing them, a good way to challenge yourself. I admit, marketing requires thick skin and determination. Long-standing prejudices tend to pop up regularly. But there IS a faithful readership for them.

Don’t let anyone tell you they won’t sell. I am proof positive that’s not true.

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Nate's Healing

*This is a short story of 15,000 words. It can be read as a standalone.

“I don’t care if you never eat another potato I’ve cooked or if you lay there in bed and turn into one, but I’ll wear white at a funeral before I’ll be associated in any manner with Arthur Willowby. He may have legs, but they’re fat ones. I’d just as soon snuggle up with a goat.”

She whirled and stomped off, not looking back, but heard his laughter as she rounded the corner again.


Nate Sawyer has a good life as a bachelor and no immediate interest in forming a permanent relationship. One day, he’ll find the girl of his dreams. Until then, he has a loving family and a job he enjoys. He’s in no hurry to settle down.

Georgianna Smith headed south after the death of her papa and a failed attempt to find love. A new start in a new place seems like her best choice, especially when she learns she’s expecting a child. No one there will know what poor decisions she’s made and judge her for it.

Nate’s sudden bout of crippling illness shortens the distance between their neighboring houses. She’s his promise of a happy, normal life, and he’s the man she should have waited for, a loving man, a perfect would-be father … if their inward personal struggles don’t tear them apart.


Suzanne D. WilliamsBest-selling author, Suzanne D. Williams, is a native Floridian, wife, mother, and photographer. She is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books. She writes devotionals and instructional articles for various blogs. She also does graphic design for self-publishing authors. She is co-founder of THE EDGE.

To learn more about what she’s doing and check out her extensive catalog of stories, visit or link with her on Facebook at or on Twitter at

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