Novellas In Series: Necessary Or No?

Lately, I’ve been reading series that include novellas alongside full-length novels, which has brought up questions about the roles that novellas play in the overall story of a series and whether or not I think it’s a valuable practice. Specifically, back in July, I read the three Skyward Flight novellas connected to the Skyward series by Brandon Sanderson. If you’re caught up on that series, you’ll remember that book three, Cytonic, ended with a lot of questions about the state of Spensa’s people. Those questions, consequently, are answered through the Skyward Flight novellas, though it’s possible that when book four of Skyward comes out, readers will get caught up on the events of the Skyward Flight novellas without needing to read them. It begs the question: how necessary are these novellas to read? Are they just for super Sanderson (or Skyward) fans, or are they vital to the overall story?

After these novellas, I turned to rereading Jill Williamson’s The Mission League series, which has four full-length novels and two novellas that fall after books one and two respectively. Now these novellas are important to understanding the series’ story as a whole, since they directly continue the main character Spencer’s story and provide a bridge between full-length books. Skipping the novellas would cause a lot of confusion and leave readers out of the loop of big character development moments. The questions this structure raises? If it’s important to the plot, why leave it in a novella that might be perceived as a side story instead of in a full-length book?

Evershore was SO GOOD.

As I considered these questions, it prompted me to think back on my experiences with other novellas or series side stories. Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive also has a couple of novellas, though arguably those are “skippable” because they don’t follow any of the main characters from the full-length books. Edgedancer and Dawnshard do explain some things, raise more questions, and are somewhat interesting stories, but I can enjoy Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar’s story just fine without them.

Another example: I used to be a huge fan of Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, which has a ton of extra content. I stopped following the series before they started coming out with novellas and short stories, but back in the day, they published whole manga trilogies and “Super Edition” books that covered backstory of fan-favorite characters from the original arc. In many ways, this bonus Warriors content filled in the gaps or satisfied fan demand, rather than contributing to the overall series arc(s). I think this conversation also relates to the recent boom of Marvel Cinematic Universe television shows: are those necessary to understanding the whole plot of the MCU now? Will some of them be more essential than others? Some shows have shown their importance. WandaVision, for example, sets up Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. But other MCU shows may prove completely irrelevant to the overall plot. Both Warriors and the MCU bring up another consideration: how much content is too much?

With that to set the stage, let’s dive in and try to answer these burning questions.

Why Novellas?

For the longest time, I assumed that a novella connected to a series meant spin-off, including giving extra content for fans, exploring side characters, or building hype for an upcoming release. In short: unnecessary and largely geared toward fans. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking that approach at all. A little fan service or fan-oriented content is totally fine, and something that I myself enjoy for my favorite franchises. I like the idea of spin-offs, as long as they don’t raise continuity issues for the larger canon (*cough*Kenobi*cough*).

Rereading The Mission League series made me reconsider this view of novellas solely serving as spin-off content. Williamson’s two novellas, Chokepoint and Ambushed, are very necessary for Spencer’s overall story. Both tell self-contained stories that would’ve been difficult to attach to the full-length books they precede, and by design they were published in sequence with the series. In this example, novellas can be used as important bridges between larger books, depending on the needs of the story.

Are Novellas Necessary?

To emphasize: novellas can be necessary, if the story of the series needs it. With The Mission League, as I said before, there are two novellas which back place after book one and book two respectively. Yet there isn’t a novella following book three, simply because there’s no need for it. The takeaway from this: use novellas if needed, but don’t force it. If you have a story arc or character development moment that won’t fit into your larger series but needs to happen, then a novella may be a great idea for you to consider. 

Title’s cut off, but this is Edgedancer, which I read during a vacation a few years ago.

But what if your story doesn’t need a novella and you just want to write one or five? That’s totally fine! I may end up doing that myself one day, as I’ve toyed with some short story collection concepts to explore extra stories with my characters. Obviously it’s always okay to write fun content for yourself, but if you do plan to share it (i.e. publish it), make sure the story is still engaging and interesting on its own. Spin-off novellas should never, ever bank their success or pique interest by just bringing the characters back together. It still needs to have a strong, compelling story of its own. Bonus points if it wraps up loose ends, fills in gaps, or supplements the larger story with a meaningful contribution.

How Much Is Too Much Content?

At risk of stirring up controversy, the explosion of Marvel Disney+ shows has made me lose interest in the MCU. The Infinity Saga still stands as one of the greatest cinematic storytelling feats of all time, in my opinion, but with a few exceptions (WandaVision, Shang-Chi, and Spiderman: No Way Home, and maybe Thor: Love and Thunder), I’ve been very underwhelmed and even disappointed in the direction of MCU Phase 4. To cut my MCU rant short, part of the reason I’ve lost interest in the MCU is simply because the amount of content they’re putting out doesn’t seem all that meaningful. It feels disorganized and disconnected from the whole. I first fell in love with the MCU because of the way the Phase 1-3 films built up to the epic conclusion. Now, it’s just hard to keep up with and stay engaged because the setups for the future bigger stories seem so sporadic. I also don’t want extra content for the sake of more Marvel content; it’s getting old really fast. Give me meaningful stories that connect back to the whole and that answer the questions I was actually asking.

I could turn my present frustrations with the MCU into its own post, but to get back on topic, the “too much content” problem may not be as big of a concern for novel writers since we can’t necessarily write at the speed these MCU shows and movies are coming out. However, if you are interesting in writing spin-off content or bonus novellas for your series, ask yourself: will this extra story bring value to my series, or would the work be better served by being left as it is? With extra content, less is more.

Should You Or Shouldn’t You Write Them?

It’s up to you!

If you want to and the story has room or need for novellas, then dive right in. If you don’t want to and the story doesn’t need it, then don’t. Again, trust the story to guide you in how it needs to be told.  

This was a topic I’ve never considered, so it was fun to explore. I’ll certainly be asking myself some of these questions with my own series, and I hope you gained a couple of things to think about with your own projects. Thanks for reading!