Novella or Novel, Trilogy or Series – decisions for writers

This post is the twenty-fifth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

As you write your story, you may wonder how long or how many words you need to write before it is complete.

The simple answer is as long or as many words as it takes to tell the story. Unless you are specifically looking to write a novella or a short story, you should be more concerned with telling the story than the word count.

But in case you are wondering, here is a guideline for story lengths. Note though that there is no unanimous consensus on the length of each of these.

Flash Fiction – under 1000 words

Short story – 1,000 to 7,500

Novelette – 7,500-20,000

Novella – 20,000 – 50,000

Novel – Over 50,000

Now, you don’t have to label your writing based on the above list. I wrote a short story prequel to my trilogy which turned out to be 12,200 words, which according to this list makes it a novelette. I figure most readers might not know what that is, so I market it as a short story because it is much shorter than the shortest book in my trilogy (which has 81,800 words).

But each of these classifications in more than just word count. They each bring about different images.

Short Story

Often these are meant to explore a particular situation or set of circumstances. Of course, there may be no “purpose” to the story. It could be a simple sketch of characters or situations. They are short enough to be read in a single sitting and typically only have a handful of characters.

Novella

Unlike a novel which may contain more characters and subplots, a novella focuses on a particular point or single issue. It typically does not contain the variety of subplots found in a full-length novel.

Novel

A novel is a long fictional narrative and usually involves more than just a few characters. Compared to a short story or novella, it has a complex plot.

When looking at word length, the genre of the book should also be taken into consideration. Young Adult books tend to be shorter (50,000 to 80,000 words) while science fiction and fantasy tend to be longer (up to 125,000 words).

If your story goes over 110,000 words, you might consider either cutting some words or perhaps splitting it into two books or even expand it into a trilogy.

Remember all of these are merely guides. The most important thing is telling a good, compelling story.

Writing a Trilogy or Series

So maybe you think writing a trilogy or series of books sounds like a good idea. It does have many positives. You have a built-in audience for each subsequent book. You will have already developed your world and your main characters, so there is less preparation to do before writing books two and three (or beyond if you write a series).

Here are some tips if you want to write a trilogy.

1.) A trilogy is not only a set of three books with the same characters but three books with one overarching storyline tying them together. A trilogy can be like a three-act play where each book is one act.

Act/Book 1 – The Set-up/Decision to Act

Act/Book 2 – The Confrontation (traditionally this one ends on a “dark note” – think The Empire Strikes Back from the original Star Wars trilogy.)

Act/Book 3 – The Resolution

2.) Develop a larger story for the whole trilogy. But each book in the trilogy will need to stand alone as a complete story in itself. This really is the biggest challenge about writing a trilogy.

3.) Be sure you have a strong character for your trilogy. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a likable character but a well-developed one that will be able to last through the whole series.

Here are some Dos and Don’ts of writing a trilogy.

DON’T – Write a full-length novel and divide it into three parts.

DO – Write a story that can be sustained through three full-length novels. This can be one long story broken down into three acts, or it can be three separate stand-alone stories using the same characters. In romance novels, this is often done with three sisters/friends finding love with each sister/friend being the focus of one book. The other characters are prevalent in each book, and their stories are either building or being rounded out as the current love story takes place.

DON’T – Just write a trilogy because you think it will help you sell your novel or get people to buy subsequent books. (See the message above about having a story that can support being a trilogy.) Yes, a trilogy brings with it a set of eager readers who want to read books two and three but that only works if book 1 is good. Many fantasy authors may choose to write a fantasy novel because it is popular for this genre, but sometimes they need to stick with either a long stand-alone book or pare down the story rather than drag it out over three books.

DO – Make sure the first book can be a stand-alone novel, if needed. Take Star Wars: A New Hope, the first of the original Star Wars trilogy, as an example. It ended with a medal ceremony and could have easily been the end of the story.

DO – Plan ahead for when you write a trilogy. It makes things easier, and you can plant clues to the ending throughout the books. I wrote my trilogy without planning it until after the first book was written, which actually happens quite a bit. While it worked out in my case (and others), it would have been better to have been planned from the beginning. (less rewriting if nothing else.)

DO – Keep detailed notes and a timeline to make sure that your characters stay true to form throughout the trilogy. If someone is pregnant at the end of book 2, you need to be sure that the age of the baby works out in book 3. Or if your character received a wound that scarred in Book 1, you need to make sure the scar is there in book 3 (and in the same place). You can probably catch errors such as these in many books and movies and some observant reader will probably catch your mistakes too.

The difference between a trilogy and writing a series of books is that the trilogy is that one overall story arc. A series of books can be complete stories that take place in the same location often with the same characters. Examples of series include the alphabet mysteries by Sue Grafton, the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffery or the Jack Ryan spy thrillers by Tom Clancy.

Writing a trilogy or series of books can be a challenge. It takes planning and an overall story arc that can go the distance. But it also is great to continue to develop and work with characters you already created. It is kind of like working with old friends.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

#16 – Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

#17 – Hinting at what is to come with foreshadowing

#18 – Tips for writing different scenes in your novel

#19 – Dealing with Writer’s Block

#20 – Killing a Character in your Novel

#21 – Keeping things realistic in your novel

#22 – Establishing Writing Goals and Developing Good Writing Habits

#23 – Using the five senses and passive voice in your novel

#24 – The benefit of research in fiction writing

Dragons as characters in your novel

Dragons have been a storytelling staple for ages. They have appeared in folklore tales where heroes slayed the dragons to save the damsel.

And in more recent literature, TV shows and movies, dragons have appeared as wild beasts to be ridden or even turn out to be allies. Adding a dragon to your story can create instant conflict as these mythical creatures breathe fire and hoard their treasure or they can be a loyal friend and protector.

Anyway you look at it, adding dragons to your novel can be a way to interject some engaging characters.

The thing with dragons is that there are so many variations in looks and behavior that they really can’t be lumped together. Whether they are villains or protectors, friends or foes, here are the two main categories of dragons.

Types of Dragons

Western or European dragon – These dragons come from European folk traditions. These four-legged, reptilian creatures with wings often have some level of intelligence and may be able to speak either through speech or telepathy.

They dragons live in caves or near rivers. Some breathe fire or poison. Some may hoard treasure. Sometimes these dragons can shape shift into other creatures including humans. Their appearance is varied. They can have horns, multiple heads or tails and come in variety of colors and sizes.

Eastern or Chinese dragon – This also encompasses all Japanese and Asian dragons. These dragons are often serpentine creatures with above-average intelligence. They too have four legs but are wingless.

They creatures represent primal forces of nature, religion and the universe. They are associated with wisdom, power and luck. Many are said to possess some form of magic. Temples and shrines are often built to honor them. Unlike the Western dragons, these Eastern dragons are portrayed as benevolent and kind.

Wyvern This smaller cousin of the dragon is a winged, two-legged creature with a barbed tail. It has the head and wings of a dragon but typically lacks the grace and intelligence of a dragon. They do not breathe fire or speak.

Dragons as characters

Since we are dealing with an imaginary creature, what you do with your dragon – whether you make him a ferocious beast protecting his lair or a full-fledge character adding conflict to your story – is totally up to you. You have complete control over whether your dragon is large or small, has one head or a dozen, and whether it has magical powers or any signs of intelligence. The possibilities are endless.

But if you are going to make your dragon more than a wild beast to be slain and going to make it an important character, you need to develop them as you would any other character. You need to know their desires, their back story and build their behaviors and characteristics around these traits.

My books

I love dragons, so they have shown up in all of my books. In my The Elemental trilogy, dragons are large enough for 5-6 people to ride. But they are far from beasts of burden. They are distinct, well-developed characters who speak telepathically but cannot breathe fire. My favorite is Zoot, a gruff, sarcastic black dragon that befriends Lina, the protagonist of the series.

In my stand-alone adventure, The Heir to Alexandria, the white dragon, Enchanta, plays less of a role in the novel. She too is telepathic, but her main role is to guard a hidden fortress, revealing it only to the rightful heir.

My current work-in-progress, tentatively called Blood Bond, goes back to making dragons main characters within the story. The tale is all about Soren and his dragon Dex. Here again, the dragons communicate telepathically and are key players in the plot.

So if you choose to add a dragon to your novel, feel free to go against the norm and create a unique creature that enhances your story. And remember, you are really only limited by your own imagination.

Editing your novel with the help of a revision outline

Last week I wrote about the different drafts your story will go through on the way to becoming a novel. During those drafts, you need to strengthen the characters and plot as well as reduce wordiness or strengthen your writing.

To do this, I find it helps to have something to keep me on track and remind me of all the areas that I need to focus on.

I am unsure where I got this revision outline. I believe it was condensed down and adjusted one from an online writing class I took years ago. But when I am done with my second draft, this is usually the outline I pull out to ensure I do a complete job of editing.

Even though the notes say to do only one of these at a time, I typically do several at once working on each chapter separately.

Revision Outline

Do only ONE step at a time. If you find another area that needs work – mark it and then continue with the current fine-tuning project. Work in block sections (defined by chapters). Complete each “block” before going on.

1.)    Structure – develop a clear, compelling plot.

a.)    Look for scenes that are passive/dialogue with no tension.

b.)    Scenes that don’t build or are anti-climactic.

NOTES: Each scene has a beginning, middle and end – there must be a climax/tension spot for each scene – make sure dialogue scenes have tension and are not just “passing time.”

2.)    Texture – Sharpen descriptive passages to make characters, setting, and action more vivid – SHOW, DON’T TELL

a.)    Look for too much/too little description

b.)    Clichés

c.)    Too many adjectives/adverbs

d.)   Information dumps

e.)    Background or setting info in the wrong place

3.)    Dialogue – Elicit character personality through conversation

a.)    Look at taglines (placement, too many, too few, too much extra information)

b.)    No information dump

c.)    Bland or melodramatic lines

NOTES: Read dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural/realistic.

4.)    Editing – Tighten pace and continuity

a.)    Look for repetition through implication

b.)    Slow passages

NOTES: Cut, cut, cut! Don’t repeat what the reader already knows or what is implied elsewhere. Be ruthless! Tighten up the copy without fear of shortening the novel.

5.)    Blending – search and destroy any weakness.

a.)    Look for soft spots – unclear character motivations, actions that seem contrived.

b.)    Fix by expanding or adding a scene so the novel flows.

The importance of the setting in each scene

You have spent time considering the setting of your novel. It could be London, a small beach-side community in Florida, on a distant planet or in the Wild West. You have thought long and hard about this choice.

But now as you get ready to write the scenes that comprise your story, you also need to spend some time considering where these scenes will take place within your setting.

If you have decided to write a story set in a high school, every scene won’t take place in the hall. Just as your crime novel won’t have every scene at the police station. You need to consider where the scenes will take place and develop these places. Just as you develop or know your overall setting, you need to know these sub-settings. You need to know their location as well as a description.

If you are writing about a college, hospital or police station, you need to realize that they all have certain rituals and protocols – almost as if they are a world all their own. Research and a visit to such places can make these places come to life.

But it isn’t enough to pick out these places and know their description. Authors also need to choose the right setting for the story event. Many authors don’t spend a lot of time considering where best to have some of their scenes or go with an obvious choice. But a change of location can change the whole scene. And that change could have the power to make or break a story.

Your character can be driving in the car, eating in a restaurant or relaxing at home. And each of these settings can bring different situations and stressors for your character. The traffic is stop-and-go, their dinner gets burned or the neighbor is having a loud party.

But what if you decided to go with a different setting?

As an author, you need to think about the individual scenes in your novel, and decide the purpose of the setting. Is it to hint at the back story? Set the mood? Foreshadow? Provide tension?

Let’s say it is the beginning of the novel, and you want to establish some characteristics of the protagonist. There are many good personal settings that can reveal truths about your character – their house, their office, their car.

But if you want to add tension to the scene consider locations that might cause stress – the site of a traumatic past event, a location where they might run into their enemy, a place that triggers insecurities.

Also when deciding on locations for scenes, they need to not only fit your story, but they need to fit your character. Maybe your character needs to reflect on some news. Would a walk in the park, a ride on the bus or sitting in a noisy bar suit their personality more?

Many times, authors settle on the first idea that comes to mind. And while this may be a perfectly good, acceptable idea, if they brainstormed and did some “what if” type thinking, they might settle on something that will make their setting amazing.

Fictional vs Real Settings: How to choose  

Last week, I wrote a list of questions that can help you determine the setting of your novel. One of the first questions was do you want a real or fictional setting.

There are good reasons to go with either option as well as negatives for each one. So how do you choose which one is best?

Every situation, every story is different and will have different setting demands. Some stories only work in a fictional setting (think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars). And some benefit from real-world settings. And then there are some – such as romance – that could work in either location.

Here are some of the pros and cons of using fictional and real settings.

Fictional Settings

Pros –

  • You get to create a whole new city/country/world. Everything is the way you want it. You pick customs, government, the local law enforcement, where the hospital is located as well as where the forests, mountains and beaches are located.
  • If you are creating your own world, no one can tell you that your society is wrong. It is your creation and yours alone. If you want two moons or for people to live in pods, it is all up to your imagination.

Cons –

  • Creating your own city or world can be time consuming. You are starting with a blank canvas, and you need to fully develop your setting for your characters to work and live in it. The type of city or world you create will determine the reactions and behavior of your characters. Fully developing your city/world includes making a map of the area so you are consistent on where everything is located, and how long it takes to travel to those places.
  • There is no immediate connection with your reader. When you mention Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon, readers can visualize the place. In your fictional world, you will need to add more descriptions to make this place come alive for the reader and be believable.

Real Settings

Pros –

  • There is typically less research when using a real location as your setting. This is especially true if you write about a place you know well. You know how it smells, how the morning air feels, how the people move and talk. You will know the layout of the city. You won’t have to research the setting as you know it and hopefully that knowledge will come out in your writing.
  • Readers already know some of these places so you can spend less time establishing your setting. When you mention the Manhattan skyline or the Washington monument, people will know what you are talking about.
  • The history, folklore and local stories can be woven into your story and give it authenticity.

Cons –

  • You have to know the place you are writing about well especially if it is a popular place like New York or Las Vegas. If you get something wrong about where something is located, or how long it takes to travel from one place to another, then those readers who know this place will be irritated, and these inaccuracies will chip away at your novel’s authenticity. If you are writing about a well-known real place, no amount of research on the Internet will replace actually going to the location.
  • Using a real place in a fantasy setting can actually sometimes make it harder for the reader to believe what is happening. They doubt things that contradict what they believe to be true. In this case, a pure fantasy world actually might work better.

And no one said you can’t do a little of both. You can set your novel in a real city but have your protagonist live on a fictional street or subdivision. Or you can start in a real place like London and ended up at a fictional magical school. You just need to pick a setting in whatever location will work best for your story.