How Writing a Short Story Differs From Writing a Novel
Do you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me "at" susanjmorris "dot" com.
Thanks for the great blog! My question is how to write a short story and how it differs (if it does) from writing a novel.
Thanks for the question and the compliment!
Short stories and novels—what a good subject. As you likely know, most authors have opinions on these things. Writers tend to have a general word count with which they are comfortable—with some tending toward the legendarily long and others toward the shortest of short. And, given their druthers, this is often the length all their stories would be, as it can be unbelievably difficult to write to a different word count. I mean, think about it! If you’re used to developing plotlines and character arcs over some 100k words, imagine going to just 1-10% of that! For this reason, some authors go so far as to define themselves as simply short story authors or novelists, and eschew other lengths altogether.
You can likely understand why. I mean, story ideas (and character arcs) tend to come in various sizes. And (in most cases, anyway) you just can’t stuff a big story into a tiny story’s package without taking a serious hit to the quality of the fiction (or stretch a tiny story out over the length of a fantasy epic, for that matter). So, if you’re a person who tends toward big story ideas, with long, fleshier character arcs, then you might find writing a short story a fearsome process—and if you tend toward smaller story ideas, stretching out your idea over a mountain of a novel might seem likewise daunting. (So many words! Why are there so many words?)
But that being said, aside from scope, the actual process of writing a short story is fairly similar to that of a novel, and most writers, given practice, can totally swing both. Here are just a few of the ways I’ve found the writing process differs for short stories, as well as a little bit on how to go about writing one for yourself. I hope it answers your question!
Short Stories: They’re Short
Of course, far and away, the biggest difference between short stories and novels is the length. But what does this mean for our intrepid writer? Generally speaking, it means you have less space to establish your characters, setting, and plot; less space to affect some meaningful change of character and context; and less space to do just about everything.
This means that short stories tend to have fewer scenes (obviously), and fewer characters to go in them. Why? Well, getting to know characters in a novel is tough enough, with their fantastical (sometimes six-syllable) names, their convoluted pasts, and their plotty social drama. Getting to know a dozen characters in a short story? Is even harder. Also, because of that same difficulty, short stories tend to focus on far fewer points of view—usually one, sometimes two, rarely more. The more perspectives you have, the weaker the reader’s attachment to each—so proceed with caution when adding additional points of view.
It also means, depending on the scope of the short story, that you may actually have to do a bit more telling than you typically do in a novel—whether to quickly sketch relevant past events, or to transition between scenes when the intervening action is irrelevant (or, at least, not as important). Which gives the narrator’s voice quite a bit more weight than it might normally have. Of course, you can also do a lot crazier things with the narrator’s voice, seeing as it is easier to maintain the crazy thing--and the reader’s interest in the crazy thing—over the course of a shorter work of fiction than a lengthy series.
The Bottom Line: In a short story? Even more so than in a novel, write intentionally. Choose every tool, from character POVs to Chekhovian guns, for a reason. And make sure each and every aspect of your story adds to the final effect.
Establishing the Character & Context
Almost always, the stuff that makes up your story is significantly more than the stuff you actually put in it. From character backstories, to past conflicts, to the history of that world, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes design behind each believable and engaging story. It’s up to you, as the author, to pull just the right details into focus to best show off your story. And in short stories, this is even more the case. You don’t have the luxury of a 10-page dissertation on the intriguing aspects and assets of your leading character, establishing a baseline and giving us a reason to care—you have 10 words. (Go!) And let’s not even get into the words you can’t waste on the weather. This means that you need to have a very strong understanding of your characters, plot, and setting. So strong, that you stop focusing on the nitty-gritty, and can sketch the essence of your lead character, their world, and the plot in a brief but riveting manner.
Since a short story is, well, shorter, and each scene does have such importance, I highly suggest blocking out your short story with extra thoroughness. This means determining not only the whos, whats, and wheres of each scene, but also where exactly each scene begins and ends, what the reader learns in the course of the scene, and what the affect should be in terms of both reader reaction and advancing the character and plot. I would even go so far as to think about the reader experience throughout each scene—what point of view is it, how tight is our point of view, what the reader should be feeling, and when the reader picks up each piece of the plottastic puzzle. Thinking through your short story with attentive vividness, adding and deleting scenes mentally and weighing the effects, will help you understand what you’re trying to say, and how you can best say it.
The Bottom Line: If you have an extra scene in a novel? It’s extra flavor. If you have a boatload of extra scenes, and every scene runs way over to boot? It may be bloated, but it might still be considered mere flavor if simply fabulous. But if you have either one of those in a short story? It dilutes your story and buries whatever points you had in mind.
Shorter Story = Shorter Arcs
So, characters have problems. Loads of problems. They’re proud, cowardly, selfish, or even just hella prickly. And, during the course of a story, this generally causes problems of novelistic (or short storytastic) proportions. Then, in the course of fixing said problems, characters tend to realize at least some part of the error of their ways and strive to improve, even just a tiny bit. Altogether, this makes something called the “inner arc” of a character—just as the actual problem, and the events that surround it, form the “outer arc.” (Or, you know: the plot. Generally, speaking, anyway.)
Now, for pretty obvious reasons, these arcs tend to be roughly the length of the story of which they’re a part. And, the metaphorical distance your character—and the plot—can go is also strongly tied to the length of your story. I mean, think about it: if a character made a complete 180 in terms of personality, going from deviant devil to absolute angel in 1,000 words—and risked and then saved the world in the bargain—would you buy it? I certainly wouldn’t. But, if a character made one, meaningful realization (that may or may not be the beginning of a greater change), and managed to fix one, manageable problem (that may or may not be part of a bigger problem)? That’s something else entirely!
The Bottom Line: For a story to feel satisfying, I like it to have at least some small notion of an inner and outer arc for the main character. In a short story, (exceptional exceptions of course excepted), you’ll generally want to pick a smaller hurdle for your character—something they can believably accomplish—as well as a smaller change in terms of personal development. Of course, this isn’t to say it all has to happen on screen. The shortests of shorts are often more about capturing one moment—typically, the moment where the inner arc pays off--rather than taking us through a whole arc. To do this, they simply imply or sketch briefly (through narrative voice, character musings, dialogue, flashbacks, etc.) the problem and the change that occurred to give your chosen moment meaning.
Short Stories Are Powerful Fun
Short stories are powerful. Some of the most moving and eloquent things I’ve ever read have been short stories—from Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”—as they can be honed to far sharper points than novels. And despite all the talk about perfection, no room for error, and the difficulties of engaging and thrilling someone in a couple thousand words, short stories are fun. They’re opportunities to play with ideas, worlds, characters, and writing techniques you might never want to sustain for a whole novel, and are a great way to stretch your writing abilities. So have fun with it!