A while back, I got to copy-edit Jenny Holiday’s novella “Once Upon a Bride,” the prequel to her Bridesmaids Behaving Badly series, and it is pretty much everything a romance novella should be: a fully realized story in under 30K words, laser focus on the main couple and their issues, great tension, and, of course, a happily ever after.
I want to use Jenny’s story as an example of what to do when writing a novella. It’s free right now and, because it’s a novella, it’s like a delicious little treat that you can read relatively quickly. So, go on, go read it! I’ll wait.
…Aaaand you’re back! See, wasn’t it great? Now we can get into Romance Novella Writing 101!
How long should a novella be and why should you write one?
There’s no hard and fast rule about length – the novella police aren’t going to come after you if you go over or under – but around 20,000 to 40,000 words would be ideal. Twenty thousand words is probably the minimum amount of words to have enough room to create a conflict, see it through its resolution, and develop the characters in it; at 40,000, you’re starting to push into full-length-novel territory and you’ll start losing the very narrow focus that a novella requires.
Why should you write a novella, as opposed to a short story or a full-length book? A short story won’t let you widen the scope of the story into a more complex narrative; a full-length book will expand the scope significantly, bringing in more characters, conflicts, and subplots. A novella stays focused on one central conflict and the people involved in it. This is especially great in romance when the one central conflict is usually “how are these people going to get/stay together?” And because you’re concentrating just on these main characters, you’ll be able to do some pretty good character development at the same time.
Novellas can be part of a series and flesh out some of the backstory that’s mentioned in the novels – in Jenny’s case, it’s the story of the couple who get married in the first book in the main series and have a relatively low-angst start to their relationship. Low-angst means minimal – i.e. easily resolvable – conflict, perfect for a novella length! (Though you can definitely up the angst level in a novella, provided you keep the plot tightly reined in.)
You can, of course, have a stand-alone novella that explores one idea in detail. Maybe it’s a plot bunny that just won’t leave you alone but can’t be incorporated into a longer story, or you know you can do the story justice in a shorter format. Novellas are also good practice for writing a full-length book—you learn how to do things on a smaller scale with the novella, then work up to the novel.
You want to introduce your characters and their attraction to each other right up front. Whatever is drawing them together is going to be the thing that carries them to the end. We ain’t got time for a super-slow burn here, people! This doesn’t mean they have to fall into bed immediately with each other (…though they could), but you want your reader to know early on why these people should be together. The very first scene in “Once Upon a Bride” is Elise and Jay meeting each other, immediately noticing an attraction, and starting to banter and develop the basis for their future relationship.
In terms of other characters: there shouldn’t be too many. You don’t have the space to really be developing any other personalities beyond the main ones. The secondary characters are there to serve only one function: to drive the main characters towards their HEA. Most of the scenes in Jenny’s story are just Elise and Jay. Elise’s friends have cameos to support her and show more about her character; Jay’s friend and ex Stacey is there to help provide some exposition of Jay’s backstory and to make Elise jealous and help establish her feelings for Jay. Otherwise, it’s the Elise-and-Jay Show all the time.
Timing is everything
Pacing is so crucial in a novella, and you have to be aware of the timeline and what would make sense for your characters. If it’s not an instalove trope, you might want to build their relationship over time – but you don’t have a lot of time to do that. But you also want to show how they initially get to know each other (and the reader can get to know them too) and see the relationship progressing in how they react to things. Judicious uses of time jumps will come in handy here. In Jenny’s novella, we see Elise and Jay meet for the first time, then have a couple more one-on-one scenes to show that the attraction is there and the tension is building – then a time jump of a few weeks happens and it’s explained that they’ve still been getting to know each other in that time:
…she could honestly say that, in a surprising twist, they had become friends. After she’d confided in him about her father, he’d done the same. It was as if, by sharing those early secrets, they had skipped all the “getting to know you” stuff that usually accompanied new friendships. Now, seven weeks after he’d hired her, they were following sessions to approve the work of tradespeople with lunch around the corner. Or wrapping up a meeting with a quick game of Scrabble. It was awesome—in general and because she’d never had a friend she didn’t have to force to play board games with her.
There’s the temptation with novellas to take the action at a breakneck speed because there’s a lot to fit in in a short amount of words. A time jump or even just a chapter break can help slow things down and get your pacing back on track.
Because of this need for pacing, you don’t usually see a ton of cliffhangers at chapter breaks in novellas. The cliffies will speed up action if you need that, but more often than not, you’ll want to slow down rather than speed up in a novella to keep that pacing consistent.
So, to sum up:
Romance novella must-haves:
Focus, focus, focus
Great character/relationship building
Pace it properly