Expanding a Short Story Into a Novel

Author Les Edgerton explains the differences in structure between a short story and a novel, and he provides writers tips for how to expand their short stories into something more substantial.

How to recirculate short stories into novels—that's what I did with Hard Times—combined two of my short stories, “Hard Times” with “The Mockingbird Café”, and took that combination in another direction to come up with a novel. A lot of writers have short fiction that has seemingly died, but in reality, is still amenable to more life.

The first thing to be aware of is that short stories and novels are two very different forms. A novel isn’t just a “longer short story,” nor is a short story a “shorter novel.” Yes, they are both of different lengths, but the differences are much more complex than that. The basic structure is different. A novel still follows the Freytag diagram, which looks like this:

Short stories used to follow a similar structure and then, several decades ago, the literary powers that be decided that all of the major truths had been discovered. There might be a scant few left to discover but if so, it would take the novel form to do so. All that a short story could reveal might be a small, central truth, which might be diagramed as such:


…where that “small, central truth” is indicated by the small blip.

Today’s short stories might best be compared to an episode of a classic TV series. For example, in each episode of Cheers, Sam ends up learning a small, usually moral truth about himself and vows to reform. However, in the next week’s program, he’s back to being the same old Sam, making the same old mistakes. Once again, he experiences a lesson in how he treats women, repents, and the end credits roll. And, next week, he’s once again the same old Sam.

Tip for humor writers: The Charles brothers, writers of Cheers, were asked what they felt was the secret to their success and they said each episode always contained at least one example of the seven forms of humor, so there was always something in each show to appeal to every taste out there, i.e., turn of phrase, puns, exaggeration, understatement, irony, sarcasm, and satire.

There’s no character arc for Sam. There’s just the same small lesson, learned over and over again.

(Les Edgerton: When Your Story Haunts Your Agent)

A novel, on the other hand, is comparable to a feature movie. It requires a strong character arc in which the protagonist is profoundly changed from where he/she began.

That established, there are several ways to transform a short story into a novel. I saw at least two methods I might use. One was to maintain the highly charged, emotional ending “Hard Times” originally presented. The problem with that was that to justify the additional number of pages a novel would require, it would be difficult, if not impossible to create a more emotional scene than the ending one in which Amelia dies. That ending justified the entire short story. So, while I could create additional emotional scenes, I couldn’t top the last scene. That meant all I’d be adding would just be filler, essentially additional tragedy piled upon tragedy until we reached the same climax.

The other choice I saw was to change the ending of the short story to where she didn’t die and keep the action rising from that until the new ending. But, like my first option, it wouldn’t work well if I didn’t introduce some major new material. It would have been fine to do just that, but I had another idea. I could take another of my short stories and marry it to “Hard Times” and create something entirely new out of welding the two together.

And that’s what I did. I took another, totally unrelated story from that same collection, “The Mockingbird Café” and combined that to come up with a totally different path than either of the stories had in their original forms. It took a bit of art and craft, but then that’s part of the “work” writers do.

To further develop a short story into a novel, time may be expanded as well as other elements. Other characters may be introduced, as well as subplots. Always remember that subplots should only exist to serve the main plot and are subservient to it. Too often, subplots are used for the wrong reasons, i.e., to “get some sex in the story” or other equally inane reason.

The reason I selected “The Mockingbird Café” to marry to the main plot is that the protagonist Lucious in “Café” provided the kind of character who would naturally serve as an ally to Amelia in her battle against her very powerful antagonist, her husband. Please note that even though Lucious was the protagonist in his story, he must necessarily now assume second banana to Amelia, for this was her story, not his and having more than one protagonist almost always serves to dilute the power of the story. He would be a central character, but it wasn’t to be his story nor even his “co-story.” He was there to add depth to the overall story and his role would now change to the “older mentor.” An important character but not the central character. It was also crucial that with his alliance with Amelia that their combined strength didn’t prove equal or greater to that of the antagonist, her husband Arnold. It’s imperative that the antagonist be the strongest character in the novel. After all, it’s the strength of the antagonist that determines the strength of the novel, not the protagonist. That’s an important lesson for newer writers to understand.

Other, more minor characters are introduced as well. A short story must normally be limited to a few central characters whereas a novel has room for more, often many more characters. The sheriff’s deputies now have names and faces and enlarged roles. A fairly important character in the “Hard Times” short story, Amelia’s love, Billy, has now been upgraded to a major role, which provides one way to illustrate the protagonist’s change.

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And, lastly, the ending needs to change. This is just logical since I’ve added significant major and minor characters and created new relationships and events. One thing that doesn’t change is Amelia’s story problem. She’s still in a subservient, abusive relationship with Arnold and it’s escaping or changing that relationship that remains her story goal. Because the scope of the story is now enlarged, an ending that is more commensurate with the added vista of the new story calls for an expanded and more powerful ending. Also, the antagonist has grown a great deal. Whereas before, Arnold was basically just a mean drunk and neglectful of his family, his abuse has grown to where it’s now a purposely directed abuse and he’s reached a new level of viciousness in his actions. The new length and added elements call for a much more dramatic resolution.

That’s the bare bones of how I took two short stories and melded them together and made something new out of them. There are other ways to accomplish the same goal, but this is a fairly reliable model you could use.

The important thing is that even though a short story has been published, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dead. Very often, there is life in “dem old bones,” and there just might be a bit of vampire blood in the bodies.

The best of luck in your own recycling efforts!

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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