Tuesday, June 01, 2021

5 Tips for Writing a Novella that Wows Readers

By Sarah Skilton, @Sarah_Skilton

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Some ideas don't quite have the legs for a full novel, but they'd make perfect novellas. Sarah Skilton shares tips on how to write a memorable novella. 

Sarah Skilton is the author of two critically acclaimed young adult novels, Bruised and High & Dry, and was a 2019 Edgar awards judge. For adults, she's written a murder mystery, Club Deception, set in a fictional underground magic club; and a romantic comedy, Fame Adjacent, about a former child star on a mission to confront her famous castmates at a 25th reunion show. Under the pen name Tash Skilton, she is the co-author of Ghosting: A Love Story, which was published in seven countries and six different languages, and which Kirkus called, "An energetic romance that would make Nora Ephron proud."

Sarah’s first novella, “Mind Games,” appears in the  rom-com anthology Summer in the City, alongside authors Lori Wilde and Priscilla Oliveras. There’s nothing like summer in Manhattan. The days are long and the nights are even longer. But when the lights go out on the city, fireworks explode...! 

Website | Goodreads | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Take it away Sarah…

When my editor at Kensington Books asked if I’d like to write a novella for a romance anthology, I leapt at the chance to try something new.

Then I panicked.

I’d written six novels and a handful of short stories before, and what in retrospect could be considered novella-length fanfiction, but never a complete novella introducing original characters and putting them through the paces of a full, three-act story arc in 1/4 to 1/3 of the length of a regular novel.

Any writer can tell you that “panic” is just another word for “research.” To procrastinate, er, learn, I scooped up novellas left and right. From historical and contemporary romance to holiday and location-themed collections, I focused on standalone novellas, but it wasn’t until writing my own novella (“Mind Games,” the third and final story in the Summer in the City romance anthology) that the lesson stuck: Characters in novellas are no less complex than those in novels, nor is it any easier for the romantic leads to earn their Happily Ever After. All the same beats occur in a novella as they do in a novel—they just occur within 20,000 words instead of 55,000+.

Here are five ways to make sure the characters and story beats in your novella are as memorable and engaging as possible, while keeping your word count lower than a novel’s.

1. Limit your locations.

In novellas, there is no time for epic journeys across vast distances. You can’t waste precious words describing multiple locations or time frames. “Mind Games” takes place in four settings:
  • Alison’s job at an art studio, where I introduce her, establish components of her personality, and explain what’s driving her: revenge on Nick, a former lover, at his debut magic show that night.
  • A flashback chapter set in college to show what happened between Alison and Nick, how they fell in love, and why she’s hellbent on revenge all these years later.
  • The magic show itself, the major set piece of the story, in which Nick performs and Alison plots sabotage.
  • The hotel bedroom in an adjoining suite, where things get heated between Nick and Alison during a power outage.

By using only a few settings, the story stays focused on the characters and their opposing goals. Likewise, the forced proximity brings about tension and confrontation.

(Here’s more with 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Setting)

2. Limit your number of characters.

As with the number of locations, the number of characters should be minimal. Keep the focus tightly on your leads and a few supporting roles. In “Mind Games,” Alison and Nick provide alternating POVs, and everyone else gets out of their way.

Audience members at the magic show are described via their behavior, not their names, because there’s no reason for readers to hold those names in their head. (What they do is important, not what they’re called.) Any minor characters who are named stand out in contrast, as necessary vehicles to provide insight into Nick and Alison and/or to help propel the plot forward.

(Here’s more with Whose Story is It?)

3. Step up the pacing.

The screenwriting edict to “enter the scene late and get out early” applies especially well to novellas. The main plot of “Mind Games” occurs within 24 hours, during which a power outage hits Manhattan.

While Alison’s flashback depicts events that spanned several months, it’s summarized within a single chapter. Think of Rick and Ilsa’s flashback in the classic film Casablanca – it establishes their romantic connection and reveals why they’ve never been able to forget each other. It’s a vital component to make the reader care about what happens when the lovers meet again, but it’s not lengthy. It’s a highlight reel.

Complete with piano score (“Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By’”), it’s also intense and specific, which leads me to my next point...

(Here’s more with Tips to Understand and Control Your Novel’s Pacing)

4. Cut to the heart of the characters right away.

What’s their wound? What’s the most salient component of their backstory? There’s no time to dawdle, but you don’t want to skimp on why the story matters. Give readers insight into backstory and personality, but instead of four or five examples, use one or two main reveals and make them count.

To heighten your characters’ emotions in a believable way, a ticking clock can help. In “Mind Games,” Alison hasn’t seen Nick in five years, and tonight may be her only opportunity for closure.

If their confrontation doesn’t happen now, the consequences to her life would be huge. And time is running out!

(Here’s more with How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character and Propels Your Plot)

5. Have fun and experiment!

Was it scary trying something new? Yes. But it was also exhilarating. You’ll never know what you’re capable of, or where your creativity might take you, unless you challenge yourself in a fresh way.

If you’re new to novellas like I was, I hope my tips will make the process easier for you.

(Here’s more with To Write or Not to Write Short?)

About Summer in the City

There’s nothing like summer in Manhattan. The days are long and the nights are even longer. But when the lights go out on the city, fireworks explode. . .

Night at the Museum by Lori Wilde

Art restorer Ria Preston knows a thing or two about beauty. And when she discovers her neighborhood crush, gregarious Wall Street advisor Vic Albright, is locked overnight in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her, she can’t resist taking him on a very private tour . . .

Lights Out by Priscilla Oliveras

Back in high school, Vanessa Rios and Mateo Garza were theater troupe rivals. Now Mateo’s a rising Broadway star and Vanessa’s his most scathing critic. Cue a plot twist straight out of central casting: the two end up alone in his NYC apartment during the blackout, setting the stage for what could be their second act romance . . .

Mind Games by Sarah Skilton

What happens in college stays in college—unless you never get over it. In fact, Alison has been waiting to take her revenge on Nick, once the hottest guy on campus, now the hottest guy on the rising magician’s circuit. But her plans to sabotage his first show are upended by the power outage. That’s when the real magic happens . . .

1 comment:

  1. The Tips don't seem much different than for a short story.