According to Wikipedia, the maximum word count for a novella is 40,000 words*. By contrast, my full-length novels are over 90,000. That’s more than twice as many words! Some authors excel at writing novellas, but if you’re like me and used to writing long, how do you cram a full romance into a smaller package? Well, I do it with a little planning.
Here are three tricks I use to fit a an emotionally satisfying romance into a shorter word count.
The main story question for romance novels is “Why can’t they be together?” In full-length novels, both internal and external conflict contribute toward keeping the characters apart for the duration of the book. With only 40,000 words or less to play with, I focus more on one or the other—either internal or external.
I usually choose internal conflict. However, since I also tend to write long, it’s difficult to fit two full romantic internal arcs into a novella or short story. That means one of the characters has to be all in from the beginning, with the rest of the story focusing on the growth arc of the other character as they resolve their internal conflict and open their heart to love.
(This is not to say there’s no external conflict, or that the other main character doesn’t change at all from beginning to end. I just mostly focus on one character’s internal conflict arc when I’m trying to stay in novella territory.)
So We Meet Again Cute
Another trick to writing an emotionally satisfying romance in a shorter number of words is to craft main characters who already know each other. This is why second chance romances or friends/enemies to lovers tropes work so well in this format. You don’t have to devote extra words to having them meet and get to know each other. It does help, however, to know their shared history and individual backstories, so you can reference these details during the story.
Since my Dance All Night novella takes place in an existing world and I hadn’t done any foreshadowing for it, I went through my character lists from the previous books and picked individuals who’d work in the romantic scenario I’d envisioned. Even though Nik and Jess hadn’t ever been on the page together, it was reasonable to assume they were already acquainted, which helped advance the romance more quickly.
Even if you’re not a fan of planning your story out in advance, focusing on the big picture and having a sense of the overall scope before you begin can help you stay under a set word count. Rather than getting lost in the weeds, just focus on the beginning, middle, and end. This can also let you know if you have too much conflict, too many side characters, or too many subplots.
A few years ago, I converted from pantser to plotter and never looked back. When plotting novellas or short stories, I under outline. Keeping my total word count in mind, I aim for a lower scene count than I think I need, especially since I know my scenes end up being around 2,000 words each, give or take, and my stories always end up longer than I think they will.
For example, my short story “Solstice Miracle” was supposed to be 5,000 words max. I outlined three scenes—the beginning, middle, and end. It takes place over one night, the characters already know each other, and there are only two side characters. Even so, it still ended up at 6,500 words.
Those are my tips for writing novellas and sticking to a lower word count! Are there any others you’d add?
*Wikipedia specifically says 39,999, but come on.