Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Short Stories Vs. Novels

I’m now 7000 words into the short story, which makes it a long short story since it’s not done. The other day, I was reading an article by a famous novelist who released a short story about her famous characters between the publication of one novel and the next. Her fans did not like it. They complained. But as the author listed the complaints, it occurred to me that the complaints were because the readers didn’t understand the difference between a novel and a short story. They had “novel-type” expectations of a short story. And there’s no way an author can satisfy those types of expectations. A short story can’t be a novel. So I thought, since I’m working on a short story, that it might be helpful to reader and writers to discuss what the difference is between a novel and a short story. Especially since I’ve had the same confusion.

When I was in junior high, my teacher assigned our class to write a short story. I started off with a bang. Then, twenty pages or so into the “short” story, I realized that I had no hope of finishing it. And instead of the teacher saying, “My dear, here’s what you need to do.” She said, “Twenty pages? Wonderful. Don’t worry about finishing the story, just turn in what you have.” (Now maybe she said this because she didn’t want to read another twenty pages of junior high penmanship—I lived during pre-PC days.) When the teacher handed back my “short story,” I’d gotten an A. At that point, I realized the assignment was about putting pen to paper, not writing a short story. I was bummed. And I never learned how to write a short story until I got to college.

I was anxious when I took my first fiction writing class—was I going to write another long mess without an end? Then, I discovered something. (Clearly, I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer or it would’ve occurred to me sooner.) A short story has one plot point and a limited number of characters. Ah, that was my problem. Every time I’d written a short before, I wasn’t writing a story, but a novel. (Or a novella, but that’s a whole other discussion.) So what’s a short story? According to Poe, who some call the originator of the short story, a short story is a narrative that can be read within 1 ½ to 2 hours (depending on whether you have to get more chocolate—okay, I added that part) and is limited to “a certain unique or single effect.” In other words, you have to have a limited number of characters and the whole story has to lead to a single purpose or conclusion. The “effect” may be the resolution of the plot that’s developed, or it may be an exploration of a character, which is common in modern literary fiction (and may be really boring to read).  This means that a short story can’t be as intricate as a novel—not as many twists, not as much character development, etc.

Think of a short story, especially one where the author is writing a short about characters that already live in a novel, as a love letter to the reader. The author is giving you a snippet of the characters’ lives while you wait for the next novel, something to tide you over while the hard work of writing the next novel happens. It’s something to remind you that the characters aren’t sitting around doing nothing while you wait for the next book.

If any of you have thoughts about the differences between short stories and novels or expectations of each, I’d love for you to share them.

N.B. The information about Poe came from Abrams’s A Glossary of Literary Terms.
A new blog, Novel d'Tales, is hosting a giveaway and my novel, Screwing Up Time, is the prize. Check it out. 


  1. Excellent points. Can't wait to read what Mark and Miranda have been up to!

  2. Interesting post!

    I usually expect a sharp plot twist in a short story. Less so in longer novels since they can unwind over many thousands of pages, but a short story has to make an impact or it's forgotten.

  3. Great post! I've written flash fiction as an exercise to sharpen my writing skills and to flesh out characters. From a reader's perspective, I've always enjoyed the short stories (no matter how short) from my favorite authors, because I enjoy reading their writing. Period.

  4. Golden Eagle,
    Yeah, I like sharp twist in short stories too--like Poe's stories, or Hawthorne's (his short are way better than his novels IMO), or O. Henry's--who can forget The Gift of the Magi?

  5. I never thought of the differences before. That's really interesting. I never really understood the difference before writing one myself.

  6. I think my short story writing is improving. Getting longlisted in the Rule of 3 blogfest helped me see that. Still, I find them harder to write, simply because I like going deep with characters. In a short, you don't have as may words to do that.

    I left you an award on my blog today! :)

  7. Great post! I've always had the same issue with short story writing. I've set off with a goal too large, and have had to cut the story way short in places that don't really make sense. Once, after I realised this, I started a short story with no goal at all, and it flopped (although I still, somehow, won a prize for it at my school). It's a tricky balance to get right.

    I'm loving you blog, by the way. Ne follower right here :)

  8. I have had readers complain about my short stories for the same reasons. Personally, I think too many people want to read a narrow set of material, which is just not how I am. In the end, I think you just can't please everyone all of the time.