Not counting my childhood Young Authors books (for a hilarious selection of those click here), I have written only one short story: a grim ghost tale featured in Pen & Muse’s Haunted House showcase. However, I’ve written many television episodes, which resemble short stories in length and substance. Writing a novel, by comparison, is like crafting a whole season of a serialized TV show. But besides length, what is the difference between long-format stories and short stories? And how can you tell if your idea works best as a short story or a novel? Or can the same story premise work equally well as both?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at what makes up a story. Whether short or long, all tales need to satisfy the basics of storytelling:
A Protagonist – who leads the story.
A Goal – what the protagonist wants.
A Problem – what prevents the protagonist from achieving the goal.
Objectives – how the protagonist tries to solve the problem.
Obstacles – what/who prevents the protagonist from solving the problem.
Stakes – what disaster will happen if the protagonist fails to solve the problem.
Resolution – how the protagonist overcomes the obstacles to solve the problem and avert disaster.
From this perspective, it would seem as if a writer could easily turn a short story (as long as it had all seven elements) into a novel. Just add more characters, obstacles and subplots to make the story longer. Right? A quick search on the Internet reveals that lots of people believe this. But I don’t, and wonder if the many novels I read that are short on plot, heavy on backstory, and padded with inconsequential scenes, were born of premises that were best left as short stories and should have never been turned into novels.
So how do you know if your idea is a short story or a novel? It comes down to one storytelling element:
How easy is the problem to resolve? The quicker a character can solve a problem, the shorter the story. If the problem will take many, varied steps to resolve, you have a novel.
Think of it in terms of TV… each episode has a small problem that can be resolved in less than an hour. Then there are “season” or “series” problems. These are the big problems. The small problems can connect to the big problem, especially in shows that are serialized (as opposed to episodic), but something is resolved in every episode, even if the episode ends on a cliffhanger. Usually that cliffhanger comes right after the small problem has been resolved and introduces the problem for the following episode, which entices the audience to come back next week (or binge watch on Netflix).
Take the TV show SUPERNATURAL, for example. Each episode has a small problem, a supernatural entity they have to defeat, and since Sam and Dean were raised to hunt monsters, they’re pretty good at it and can take down the baddies in less than an hour of screen time. The big problem, though, the one that is harder for them to resolve, is finding out what killed their mother and destroying it – which leads into a seasons-long story arc. Often the cliffhanger at the end of a Supernatural episode is a clue to this big problem.
Like a season of your favourite television drama, novels need a big problem that warrants using 300 pages or more to address it. How do you know if the problem is big enough? Start by brainstorming how the character could possibly solve the problem. If it will only take a few steps, you’ve got a short story. If the problem seems almost insurmountable, like it will take lots of time and dozens of attempts to resolve, that’s a novel.
Take BREAKING BAD, for example. If Walter needed money for a one-time surgery, the story would be much shorter. He’d deal some drugs, get the money after some scary close calls, and get out before he got in too deep. But the creators made sure that his problem was much harder to resolve. Walter has cancer, something that could require treatment for months or years. And to make the problem even more complicated, Walter is worried about leaving money for his family if he passes away. This is a big problem, an ongoing problem, one that cannot be wrapped up quickly.
So if you have a short story that you want to turn into a novel, don’t just inflate it with more characters and subplots, think of how you can make the problem bigger and less easy to resolve.
Have you ever turned a short story into a novel? What did you do to make sure there was enough story?
21 thoughts on “Is Your Idea a Short Story or Novel?”
noo cause i want to know the disadvantages and the advantages pleae
I realized, after decades of trying to write novels (and getting a couple published!) that I was really a short story writer! I hate reading my old stuff because of exactly what you mentioned–so much padding! Great post.
Interesting observation! So are you writing shorts now? Or novellas? Or serials? I feel it’s a good time to be a short story writer!
This was a very informative post. I have struggled with this exact thing a few times – it’s cool that you compared it to tv shows. I tend to do short stories for practice to get my mind flowing and then start writing a novel.
Thanks, Meg! It seems a lot of people struggle with this. Glad you found the post informative! And I might follow your lead and start writing short stories to get my mind flowing…
Heather, this is an absolutely awesome post. As ever, I am astounded by how clearly and succinctly you can get these sorts of ideas across.
The analogy to screenwriting was perfect. I’m going to have to go back and make sure my story problems aren’t easily solved. I think that was the problem with my first MS attempt (now sadly abandoned).
Thanks, Alex! That’s so nice to hear. Hopefully this advice will help you with your current story’s problem. And perhaps you’ll find that abandoned MS works better as a novella!
My biggest issue has always been that my characters have tons of really cool small problems but when I tried to write “novels” I’d get annoyed with them for needing a novel to solve said problems (read: being too dumb to get their acts together for 100s of pages!) .So I switched to writing series’ of short stories about the same characters, and I think it works a lot better for me.
Some writers gravitate towards big problems and some towards small. Lucky for you, I think short fiction is making a comeback. Also, thank you for realizing that your characters don’t need hundreds of pages to solve a small problem! That is seriously one of my biggest pet peeves in novels – small problem and characters too dumb to solve it. I’d much rather read a series of short stories about the same characters. 🙂
Great post! I turned a novel idea into collections of short stories. The other way around didn’t happen to me yet. The novel idea had a big shift in characters and overall arc. The cast expanded and I realized that I couldn’t have a single voice. It made sense to have the “smaller problems” lead to short stories, each from a different point of view. It gave more insight in the universe this way. I am aiming for each volume containing 10 related short stories following an overall arc. Not all stories directly relate to it, but they are connected. I never thought I would do something like this as I normally easily have a main character/voice but it works wonders for this particular universe.
That sounds really cool! And a lot like a TV series with an ensemble cast. 😉
Loved how you place all the basics into a short numbered list. I intend to use all of your advice someday — hopefully not too long in the future. 🙂
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Please do! So glad you find it helpful. 🙂
Nope. Never had. I don’t write short stories anymore, so I don’t think in terms of “small problems”. But your argument makes perfect sense to me!
I think I’m the same – I tend to think “big problem” and that’s one of the reasons I left episodic TV to write novels. I wanted my characters to face huge, life-changing problems. Though TV has become much more serialized lately, which is appealing to me, so perhaps a comeback is in order. 😉
Funnily enough I have hundreds of short stories and not once have I tried to turn them into a novel or serialised fiction. There are those I set aside because I knew they definitely had potential, but I’ve yet to return to them! You make some excellent points, and I love the Supernatural example. The show does a really good job of providing us with adventure after adventure, while still managing to thread in the overriding arc for the series.
Hundreds? Wow! Were the short stories for writing practice or were you submitting to magazines/contests?
I’ve been writing short stories since I was a teenager, so they are mainly for pleasure! I write them now for writing practice. I haven’t actually tried submitting them. I’ve never given it much thought. Maybe I should pull together a collection 😀
You should! Sounds like you have a ton of material.