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?