The Difference Between Short Story and Novel Writing

Sophie Playle

Many writers start with short stories before they move onto novel writing. Short stories are great to start with because they take less time to write and usually require a less complicated structure, letting you develop your storytelling skills in a more manageable way.

Of course, short stories are an art form of their own, but if you want to try your hand at writing a novel it can feel like a very daunting task. After all, a novel isn’t simply a really long short story. Oh no, we’re dealing with a whole nother kettle of fish. (Which is a pretty strange saying, when you think about it – who’s keeping their fish in kettles?) So what is the difference between short story and novel writing?

First, let’s think about the main difference between a novel and a short story:

  • A novel is a journey – not only for the characters, but for the writer and the reader.
  • A short story is an intense experience – something to linger over and savour.

To capture these differences, you’re going to have to write in a different way. Here are some points to keep in mind.

Difference 1: Length and pacing

The most obvious difference between a novel and a short story is length. Now, there are no set rules about how long a short story should be, or how long a novel should be. And rightly so, as there’s more to it all than that.

However, a novel is a larger-scale project that takes a lot more stamina than a short story. It will take longer to write, so you need to make sure you have a complex and sustainable idea. You need to be ready to commit a large amount of time and effort into writing a novel.

It’s also easier to lose track of your writing, so keeping chapter summaries in a spreadsheet, or using software such as Scrivener to organise your chapters and scenes, can be useful.

The longer your narrative, the more you have to think about pacing, too, since you’re going to have to convince your reader to keep going for longer. Pacing is affected by the number of plot events your narrative contains (quickening the pace) as well as the level of detail in your writing (slowing the pace). Variation and balance is key.

Difference 2: Plots and subplots

More words does not mean more plot/action. Read that line again. Let it sink in.

It’s almost instinctual to think that you need more stuff happening in a novel than you do in a short story, and many beginners end up with vast, complex plots because of this assumption … I’ve fallen victim to this idea, myself!

Really, though, you don’t need lots and lots of events in a novel. You simply need a lot more development of the events you have – internal and external reactions from characters, more detail and less summary.

Subplots can be used in both short stories and novels, but are mostly used in novels. They are parallel stories that run alongside the main narrative (while still connecting to the main story) that enrichen the plot or the theme in some way.

Difference 3: Complexity of conflict

Short stories contain problems that are resolvable quickly. They usually focus on one aspect of a character’s life, or one aspect of a problem/relationship in a character’s life.

In a novel, the issues and conflict tend to be deeper, and ideas can expand in more than one direction. The difference lies in the size of the problem and how easily resolvable it is.

For example, in the speculative short story ‘The Light of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw, the main characters, a married couple, are going on holiday to try and repair their fraught relationship. The husband thinks that ‘doing something extravagant and crazy would set us right again’, so they stop to look at some ‘slow glass’ for sale. (I won’t spoil what this is – you should read the story!) By the end of the story, the conflict between the couple is hinted at being resolved because of their encounter with the slow glass. The story focuses on a single aspect of a relationship, then resolves it through a single event.

On the other hand, Gerald’s Game is a novel by Stephen King about a married couple who go on holiday to try to repair their fraught relationship. Things take a dark turn, though, when the husband dies while the wife is handcuffed to the bed. The problems the protagonist faces keep getting worse and worse, allowing for an expansion of the plot and a deep dive into the character’s past and psychology.

Difference 4: Timespan …?

The difference between a short story and a novel is not necessarily to do with time span. Some novels are set in a day (for example, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf). Some short stories can be set over several days, or even several years or different time periods (for example, ‘The Hanging Girl’ by Ali Smith). Usually, however, flash fiction (a very short story) is contained to one moment or one scene.

Difference 5: Depth

The biggest difference between a short story and a novel, though, is how deep the writing goes. Novels have the room to contain a deeper exploration of a larger number of characters, details, thoughts, and so on, and can more easily hold multiple points of view.

When I say novels contain more depth, I don’t mean they have more meaning. Short stories have just as much potential for meaning and resonance as novels do – in fact, brevity can often heighten these aspects of writing, creating effect more in what is left unsaid than what’s directly on the page.

Instead, I’m talking about how much detail the writer can go into on the page – which is inextricably linked to both length, complexity and pace.

Example of How a Short Story Could Turn into a Novel

Some short stories have the potential to turn into novels if there’s a large scope to explore a character’s past, or whether more events can branch off from the main conflict of the story.

In the short story ‘One of These Days’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the surface conflict is that the mayor wants his tooth removed; the dentist is reluctant to treat him and displays a sense of nonchalance. The mayor then threatens to shoot the dentist if he doesn’t pull his tooth. This raises the tension. Surely the mayor is joking? But the way the dentist eyes his own revolver gives the threat an underlying menace. Just as the dentists pulls the rotten tooth from the mayor’s jaw (without anaesthesia), he says, ‘Now you’ll pay for our twenty dead men.’ This single line adds meaning to the conflict.

How this works as a short story: This story contains a simple narrative. The dentist of a small town takes the opportunity to inflict a small act of revenge on a mayor who has done the town wrong. The story is around 1,000 words long and focuses on one relationship and one simple conflict, which is resolved. It works brilliantly as a short story.

How it would have to be different to become a novel: This simple revenge story also contains the potential for expansion. Why are the men dead? Is the mayor really corrupt? Why does the dentist hate the mayor so much? What else has he done? Was the dentist linked to one of the dead men? What’s the back-story of this uneducated dentist in the surgery full of dust and cobwebs? If the author were to attempt to go into this level of depth, the prose would expand into a novel. As it is at the moment, it perfectly serves the short story form.

In all, the main difference between short story and novel writing is not just about producing more words – it’s about the scale and depth of the prose. You need a complex idea that’s worth exploring, and then you need to explore it.

Easier said than done? Take a look 5 Simple Steps to Move from Short Story to Novel Writing, in which I suggest how you can put all this information into action. (Cue inspirational music.)

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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