This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.
One of the panelists, dark fantasy thriller writer Alan Baxter, has his own coverage of this session on his website.
Alan Baxter has provided a good introduction to this session, writing “a novella or novellette is a story length longer than the short story but shorter than the novel. To put numbers on it, a novellette is usually considered to be something between 10,000 and 20,000 words. The novella is defined by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000. Other definitions start as low as 10,000 words and run as high as 70,000 words. You get the picture.
The basic thrust of this panel was twofold:
Are novellas harder to write and/or sell?
Are novellas actually the best length for SF?”
The panelists discussed the aversion of many authors and publishers to novellas because they are generally harder to sell. One solution discussed was publishing two or more novellas in one book so potential readers will feel like they are getting ‘a full book’ rather than ‘half a novel’. A successful example of this is panelist Keith Stevenson’s own novella anthology, X6, which features six novellas in the one book. Keith Stevenson also has an upcoming short story anthology called Anywhere But Earth. They discussed that magazines which publish fiction usually have an upper word limit of around 10,000 words (ruling out novellas, or only including ones at the very low end of the novella range depending on your definition of novella) and magazines which publish longer novellas mostly publish only one per issue because of the length. On the internet, however, there is much more space for many novellas to be published.
Robert Silverberg said that the novella is his preferred length of story to write, saying that novellas “don’t require the gratuitous underlay of subplot and embellishment found in novels”. He suggested that a novella is a great length “for the resolution of one human issue”, and the panel discussed how some fiction writers feel they ‘owe people a full story’ and pad out a novella length story into a novel. In regards to extending a story’s length, he suggested, “Don’t just put three words where you have one; it’ll be a mess.” Silverberg suggested that a novella can hint at a world and its characters and create some mystery; enough of an immersive experience for a reader to imagine that fictional world continuing.
He outlined the basics of his approach to developing a novella length story:
Who did it happen to?
What damage did it do?
How do you end it?
He also discussed successful novella to novel adaptations such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (novella and novel), To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon (novella) and Stefan Rudnicki (novel) and his own adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man into the novel The Positronic Man (which was later adapted into the movie Bicentennial Man directed by Chris Columbus and starring Robin Williams).
The panel discussed whether ebooks would help novellas’ popularity because potential readers will not necessarily pay as much attention to the length of a book when they don’t have the physical object in front of them to remind them that of a novella’s small size in comparison to novels. Also, ebooks can be published at low cost and therefore lower risk, which may entice publishers (and authors themselves) into releasing more novellas. When one of the panelists suggested that soon people may not distinguish between books and ebooks but between books and pbooks (where ebooks are the main form of book and print books are distinguished as pbooks). At this point Robert Silverberg, who has been writing fiction since the 1950s, laughingly put his head in his hands as if to say ‘what is the world coming to?’ He recalled that someone once said of him: “Robert Silverberg spent his life writing about the future. Now He’s condemned to live in it.”
One of the panelists pointed out that common storytelling structures for television can be useful when adapted for novellas because there is often a straightforward A plot and B plot (main plot and subplot), without a great deal of expansion. One example of an approach to television plot structure is the following from Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin:
“In Act One, we are introduced to the characters, the conflicts, and what is at stake.
In Act Two, the hero or heroes embark on a course of action to resolve the conflict (ie. solve the crime, find the lost gold, etc.) but new obstacles are thrown in his path. The end of act two should turn the story in a startlingly new and unexpected direction. […]
In Act Three, our hero reacts to the change in the situation is under control, but by the end of the act, he finds out he’s wrong. The situation is much worse, or a new, much more daunting obstacle has been put before him and his goal. All the stakes have been dramatically raised. They are all going to die. There is no hope.
In Act Four, our hero comes up with a solution, overcomes his obstacles, resolves his conflicts and achieves his goals. The killer is caught, the diamond is returned, the world is saved.”
A simple way of interweaving A and B plots is to do two versions of each of the above steps; one for the main plot, taking up the majority of the page space (or screen time), and another for the subplot, taking up significantly less page space (or screen time).
So if you usually read or write novels and short stories but not novellas, maybe you could give one a go. Stephen King’s collection, Different Seasons, has four great novellas – three of which have been adapted into movies (The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and Stand By Me).
NEXT: On ‘Kim Stanley Robinson – Guest of Honour Speech’
The Australian Literature Review