When the urge to write fiction sets upon you—when you get that sudden spark, that thunderclap of Oh, my gosh, maybe I could write this!—it’s natural to try your hand at a short story. But there comes a day when you’re considering an idea, and you realize you’ve been kicking it around for quite a while. Maybe you’ve written an opening scene. You’ve jotted down some plot points, you’ve sketched out a character or two. You realize you’re not just interested in the story—you’re passionate about it. And the question surfaces: Do I have a short story here, or—gulp—a novel? Which form will serve it best?
There’s a way to figure it out. Keep your story idea in mind as we start with the fundamentals.
1. DURATION OF STORY
Obviously, the short story is short; the novel is long. But while short fiction typically ranges from 1,000–5,000 words, there’s another kind of length to discuss: time frame. One of the most prevalent characteristics of a short story is a concentrated time frame. A few hours, a day, a week. A short story that spans years or generations risks leaving the reader unsatisfied.
The novel, on the other hand, is the ideal form for a story that is literally extended in length. If you want to explore the effects of time on your characters, the novel is the more suitable vehicle.
So consider: How much time might your story require?
2. NUMBER OF CHARACTERS
Counting characters might seem simplistic, but actually it’s one of the best criteria for determining the scope of your story. If your cast keeps growing as you flesh out your plot—let’s say you’ll be portraying a large family, or a complex group—then a short story won’t serve. You simply don’t have room in 2,000 or even 7,000 words to draw more than a few characters effectively, giving each one enough presence for the reader to keep them straight, let alone relate
On the flip side, beware of relying on just a select few characters to carry a novel. On one hand, you’ll be able to develop those characters deeply, but on the other, you’ll risk losing readers who are restless for quicker pacing.
What about point of view? In a novel, the number of points of view is up to you. For short stories, it’s sensible to stick with the classic single POV, either first person or third limited. Briefer stories can also work well with the POV shifting between two characters, but when you get to three or more, the varying perspectives can dilute the power of the story.
3. PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
I once had an editor advise me, as I was revising one of my early novels, to add more characters. I played around with the idea. As soon as I’d decided to add a few fresh faces and give them something to do, I realized that what my editor had really asked for was more plot.
Ding. More characters equal
Most short stories have but one plot. The very best, however, have what I call a plot-and-a-half—that is, a main plot and a small subplot that feeds in a twist or an unexpected piece of business that adds crunch and flavor to the story as
Consider how much plot you’ve got worked out so far. Does one plot strand, or perhaps a plot-and-a-half, feel just right? Or is your story straining to bust out and explore territory you haven’t seen yet? Which leads us to …
Coincidentally, when I got the assignment to write this piece, I’d been rereading Anton Chekhov’s short stories. My copy, a sublime little clothbound volume issued by the Modern Library in 1932, features marginalia written by previous owners. In the blank half-page after “Grief,” a story about a bereaved hackney driver and his callously abusive passengers, someone wrote, “Second-lowest man has one job in life: to keep the lowest man down.”
Now that is an incisive reading of the story. One vest-pocket-sized tale was all the great Chekhov needed to pierce our hearts with that truth. Just like Chekhov, in a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.
Writing a novel could take a year or more, and whether you publish it or not, it’s a huge investment of time, energy, and mental and emotional strength. If you feel you’ve got a novel on your hands, consider these most important questions:
Do you lie awake thinking about your story? Do your characters come to you at odd moments and stand silently, waiting for you to do something with them?
Are you fully committed to doing whatever it takes to pour out your best? (It bears mentioning that in order to get your best, you often must pour out your worst—and be willing to toss it all in the trash one day.)
Are you afraid of wasting your time on something that might not succeed? (Everybody is.) The real question: Will fear turn you away from this task, or will you push through fear, risking failure but opening untold possibilities?
Will you be sorry if you don’t have a go at it?
Whichever form you select, novel or short story, you should work with joy, with passion and without haste. And hey, you can always change your mind. Writing is a journey.
Have a great trip.
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