Novels vs. Short Story

tapestryMy first novel started off as a ten page story. The first revision ballooned up to twenty pages. By my fourth revision, I was rocking fifty pages—that wonderful in between of not quite a novella, not quite a short story. I knew I had to make a choice: cut or expand. I chose to expand.

In retrospect, I probably should have cut. It would have been better that way. However, I do not regret my decision. I learned a lot from writing that first novel. It taught me perseverance, pacing. It taught me how to juggle multiple perspectives and plot threads. It also taught me that several plot lines I’d chosen to follow existed only to expand the page count. You’ve read books like this, I’m sure. You can tell because, half-way through, you’re thinking “Why am I reading about this?”

So how do you know if you should cut or grow? Look at the main tension of your novel—the main story thread. What’s on the line? What does the primary character want? How quickly can you resolve the tension. Strip your story down as far as it will go, keep only what is necessary. You may even want to do an outline. Some writers color coordinate their scene by scene outlines. You may not need to go to that extreme, but it may help.

Try the story as a 20 pager. From there, determine if you can reasonably keep it around that amount. Think of it as your first chapter. Can your first chapter stand alone as a story? If not, why not? What needs to be resolved?

If you want to expand to a novel, think escalator. How can you escalate the tension? don’t think the answer is adding new plot threads (though that’s one viable option). If you do, make sure that all threads weave together into something cohesive, maybe a doily or a blanket or a tablecloth—they should work together to accomplish a purpose as opposed to simply adding pages.

Then again, maybe you should color coordinate your outline, so you can visually see the tapestry you’re weaving.

6 Comments on Novels vs. Short Story

  1. First, I love the new look on the blog. The color scheme is appealing: diverting without distracting.

    Second: I’ve always found it ironic that when I set out thinking “this will be a short story,” I inevitably right a lot, to the point that I sound find myself wondering “how long is this thing going to get?” Wheras, sometimes when I set out with “this will be a magnus opus on [fill in plot/subject]” I find myself with lots of little scribblings and plot ideas, and staring at the screen thinking, “Huh, what comes next?”

    Of course, I know one of my worst weaknesses is verbosity, and so I’ve learned not to care to much when starting a work how long (or long-winded) it gets, but to make mental notes to go back through and cull excess writing. I find it interesting that with the rise of the ebook (and its model of author-led publication) that some books are becomming like DVDs, with extended/deleted scenes available for readers to pursue outside of the main work.

  2. Michelle–

    First: Thanks for the kind words on the design. I’d love to take credit, but it’s provided free by WordPress. I simply chose it. 🙂

    Secondly: You make good points. It’s always best to start bigger and cut. That’s how I typically work. My first short has a novel’s worth of back story, and I’ve thought about going back and extending it. But for now, I like it where it is. The process of tweeting it really made me measure my words.

    Thirdly: I love what you have to say about the way e-books are changing publishing. Have you done much research on it? I’d LOVE to feature you as a guest blogger on that issue. If not, I’ll have to research and tackle the subject on my own.

    Good to hear from you again!

  3. Believe it or not, the novel I’ve been writing for the past few years was once a short story. In fact, when I first developed the concept, it fit as a (very poorly drawn) comic in an old notebook. Over time, I developed it, rewrote it, and toyed with its format until I found myself starting a novel four years ago. Fortunately or unfortunately, I find that I enjoy the story a lot more as a complex lace of intertwining backstories and conspiracies instead of the shoddily stitched napkin it started out as.

  4. alexandria heins | January 5, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply

    When I first started to write I chose to attempt a long convoluted story with an amazing plot… it never happened. I got thirty pages in and I became bored with the story, never ended up resolving the problem on the plot, lost interest in my characters and the whole thirty pages turned to garbage. With this failure under my belt I have more respect for writers. I think that less would have been much more in my case. I later went scene by scene and make an outline to minimize the mess. And the final product was still, I am sad to say, garbage.

  5. I read mostly short stories because they are very interesting and then novels are very good as well because they like to drag you from one book to the other. Novels are very good reading because they are super long and if you have time they are very good to read to let the time pass. At the end i love short stories because they are short and very simple to read and understand.

  6. I think that a writer has the knowledge to determine when a novel should stop being a novel, when you stop running out of things to say is a big indecator. This is the same when writing a short story if your coming to an end but there is many more things that you have to write then go ahead an expand, but only if it makes sence and its going to all help the story flow.

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