There are many bad reasons to focus on short fiction and one really good one…and both present their own problems. Stick with me as I show you how to adapt your writing to short fiction OR expand your short stories into novels.
Bad Reasons to Write Short Stories
Short stories are great for your career, they say. Start with short fiction, they say, to
- Build your publication credits
- Help new audiences find you
- Let editors know you’re serious
- Raise your profile by winning contests
- Keep your novel fans happy in between books
The problem is not everyone loves short stories. I’m talking about readers and writers, here.
Writing short, while undeniably a useful skill, just isn’t something everyone loves. Maybe you’re in that group.
The bigger problem for you is that the mythical ‘they’ who tell you short stories are a great tool in your toolbox aren’t wrong.
But don’t worry, I’m going to explain some of the reasons you find it hard to write short, and I’m going to show you some techniques for stopping your story’s attempt to become an epic 14-part novel series.
Good Reasons To Keep It Short
If you love short fiction, that comes with its own set of problems:
- Nobody has made a living selling short fiction since 1959. (OK, I made up that date, but do you know anyone your age who has earned a decent hourly wage for a short story?)
- The majority of readers read novels, not short fiction.
- When you show a story to your fellow writers, 98% of them say “this would be a great first chapter” or “I really want to know more.”
- You feel like you ought to be writing novels (because that’s what most people read and buy), but the thought is terrifying: like the difference between the fun of decorating a single room vs. committing to building a whole house with underfloor heating, a solarium, and a bathroom for every guest. You have no idea how to get started and you’re not even sure you want to.
- When you try to ‘add words’ you get the feeling you’re just adding words, not actually adding to the story.
Fear not: in this article I’m going to show you some of the ways short stories and novels differ so that, no matter which one you’re trying to build, you can read the blueprints and create something that stands on its own.
Divided By A Common Language
I’m from the UK but I’ve lived in the US my entire adult life. There’s a funny-not-funny line about the two countries being divided by a common language.
(In Britain, ‘momentarily’ means ‘for a moment’ whereas in the US it can also mean ‘in a moment’. Next time you’re on a plane, watch the faces of your British companions as the American pilot blithely announces that “we’ll be in the air momentarily”…)
Short fiction and novels (or even book-length memoir) are similarly bifurcated.
We use the same ingredients, and some of the same techniques to tell stories that entertain readers. But we do it in different ways, depending on whether or not we’re writing novels or short fiction. And we don’t talk about those differences enough.
Guidepost 1: Consider The Reader
This January I decided to read at least one short story every day to catch up on some of the best of last year’s writing. It was a dizzying experience but one I enjoyed.
At the same time my husband decided to get back to reading more fiction and plunged into a novel which he dutifully finished and rated: “hmmm”. He passed it on to me to see what I thought.
I enjoyed it, and I think I know why we reacted differently to it.
Coming off a month of reading short fiction, I was very comfortable with the novel’s fractured timelines and puzzle-like structure. Coming back to fiction after a break, my husband found it harder to get invested in the story as it jumped around. (In retrospect, he probably should have picked something more linear.)
Novel readers, in general, want to be immersed in the world of the novel, to be swept away by it. A novel is a languid soak in a deep, bubble bath with an endless supply of hot water and somebody else on hand to watch your kids.
People don’t read short stories for that. They read for the gaps, for the puzzle, for the quick, emotional hit. A short story is a bracing, polar bear plunge that leaves you intellectually invigorated (and probably a little bit smug).
Readers come to short and long looking for a different experience.
You, as the writer, must remember which experience you’re trying to create.
For novelists writing short: you’re probably telling us too much. Try lopping off the opening paragraph (or two) of your story. Then do the same with the end. Jump around in time with no transitions and see what happens. Leave entire characters off the page.
For short story writers trying to go long: Slow down and let your gaze linger on your characters and their setting. Immerse us in key moments. Don’t keep pushing the plot. Play with paragraphs that link one scene to the next (thematically or to demonstrate the time-jump)
Guidepost 2: Omikase vs Rodizio
When you enter a Japanese restaurant and choose the omikase option, a waiter brings you plate after plate of tiny, exquisitely crafted taste explosions, all constructed so that each selection’s component ingredients compliment or heighten the others.
If I took you to my local Brazilian steakhouse for a rodizio-style meal, and you’d help yourself to whatever you like from a ‘market table’ groaning with salad items and cold cuts, then flag down passing gauchos who’d slice meat from giant skewers and drop them onto your plate until you beg them to stop.
(Can you tell I’m missing eating out?)
Omikase is a highly-curated taste experience. Rodizio is a glutton’s paradise…but still with some structure imposed by the author of the experience (market table, then meats, then if you haven’t yet exploded, dessert and coffee.)
Short stories — and I bet you can see where I’m going with this—are the omikase in my metaphor. Every detail has to count, be highly flavored, and complement all the other parts of the story (character, theme, tone). Readers, famously, will notice the gun on the mantlepiece and if you haven’t used it by the end, your story will feel unsatisfying.
Novels have room for digressions, for trips to different parts of the story world, for characters and details that are just there to build up the atmosphere. Uncle John’s old rusty blunderbuss could hang over the fireplace of the hunting lodge from the opening scene to the end, and nobody would particularly care.
Because of the concentrated nature of short stories (and their details), readers can’t cope with too many. Choose carefully.
(As with every writing ‘rule’, there are of course exceptions. You absolutely can write a short story with crowd scenes and sub plots and an ensemble cast. It’s just…harder. All the tips in this article are intended to help you analyze problems you might be having, not to constrain you.)
For novelists writing short: if your short stories keep getting longer and the middle of your story keeps receding into the distance, try telling us less. Cut characters. Cut locations. Cut explanations. Write a draft with as few named characters as possible, set it in one room (maybe two) and see how that goes.
For short story writers trying to go long: get comfortable adding characters. Create an ensemble. Let them move around their surroundings. Allow them to notice things, based on who they are, where they come from, and what nobody else in the scene is noticing. Consider the deeper implications of what they notice. Allow for interpersonal tensions. Let your ensemble move to a new location and explore it too. Remember: people who like novels want to be immersed in your world. And you can always edit for pacing later.
Guidepost #3: Scale & Shape
Bruce Holland Rogers says, “A novel invites the reader to explore an entire house down to snooping in the closets. A short story requires that the reader stand outside of an open window to observe what’s going on in a single room.” (Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction)
A novel can represent a character’s journey over a week or a whole life (or several generations if you’re writing family sagas).
Short fiction represents an intensely-meaningful moment in a character’s life (possibly on a single day). It’s the moment when your character changes or sees something in a new way, even for a moment. This moment is the fulcrum on which a short story turns. You can choose to show us as much or as little of the before and/or after as you like.
In a short story you build up the character enough to give us that emotional jolt (the polar bear plunge) and not much more.
This is why short stories can work in so many different forms:
- Narrative stories that are chronological
- Narratives told out of chronological order
- Letter extracts
- Overheard conversations
Short stories are not mini-novels and do not have to be shaped like them. They don’t have to hold up the weight of a good idea for very long. They’re great for experimentation, trying out new styles, new voices, new forms.
Novels are great for exploring a big idea thoroughly.
For novelists writing short: remember, you’re peering in the window of someone’s life, or looking in the keyhole, not exploring the whole house.
For short story writers trying to go long: to write in a more immersive style, remember you’re the invisible man investigating every nook and cranny of your characters’ lives. Feel free to open a few drawers and show us what you find.
Whether you’re a novelist trying to master short fiction, a short fiction writer who wants to write more and better stories, or a creative non-fiction writer who just wants to channel that short fiction emotional punch for your memoir, it’s worth building up your short fiction skills.
Are you a natural-novelist or an avowed short story writer? What do you struggle with most when switching styles?