Two differences between a novel and a short story
It’s not just about the length. A short story is not a compressed novel. Novels can involve multiple plots (subplots), multiple perspectives, and more than one theme that resonates throughout the text.
Sorry to disappoint, but you can’t have all these with a short story. I’ve written about why you should even write a short story here if you need an encouraging or convincing word or two.
Short stories, obviously, are shorter. They typically run anywhere from one thousand to 7,500 words. Novels, of course, are tens of thousands of words long.
The reason I mention this is because length means something. Ever heard the rule about writing a book that every word counts? Well, what does that mean for a short story?
Every word counts
Same thing. But, this has a greater meaning. Every word adds another to your limited word count. Every adverb, adjective, noun, preposition, and contraction limits the impact you’ll make on your reader.
Make your choice
This is a great exercise to help any writer who wants to be great. Writing a short story is relatively easy. Writing a good one, however, is difficult. You have to practice writing concisely. You can’t use adjectives and adverbs flippantly, though you shouldn’t anyway. You can’t have multiple perspectives that bring multiple subplots into play. You need one story, one character, and one idea.
When you have more than one perspective in a short story, you dilute the story’s strength. Imagine being in a large room with one person you don’t know. You’re surrounded by people, but you’re only talking to that stranger. Within a couple hours, it’s safe to say you’ll be decent friends. You will know enough about them to be able to decide whether you’d be great friends, able to continue your relationship outside this room full of people.
If you were in the same room, but instead of one, you were introduced to two people, how much more would you know about one person in your group? Consider your own conversations. How often are subjects more personal in a group rather than one-on-one? When does the intimacy come in?
This applies in a short story, too. Multiple characters prevent the intimacy with a reader because you don’t have 70k words. You have 7k. So, what character has the good story? What character do you want the reader to know and know well?
It’s habit for a novelist to think big when thinking of plots. Fast-paced, attention-demanding chapters are meant to pull the reader in and keep their nose tilted toward their chin as they read. Success.
Remember, short stories are short. Your goal isn’t to throw them into a fantasy world and see how thoroughly you can describe it in 7,500 words. Most of the time, a short story is built around a character more than a plot because the character has a theme to deliver, a purpose for telling someone a small part of a big life.
You can’t deliver the same impact if you’re trying to surprise your reader. You don’t have time to do that well. You can spook your reader, seduce them, perhaps, and even shock them, but you can’t deliver an elaborate story without further diluting the power your story has the potential to have.
So, choose your plot wisely. It’s easiest if you choose a theme—a point you want to make—and work around it. Give life to a character, and give them a reason to tell a story. Think big if you want, then pick out something within that big idea to focus on.
Do this, and you have the potential to give meaning to a small moment. You can make an hour on a bench seem like a lifetime in someone’s past. You can do more than you think with a short story, but you have to understand, first, that a short story isn’t a novel.
I’ve seen and even written many fantasy/sci-fi short stories. They don’t work. Not really. But let me explain why. Can you write a fantasy short story after which a reader won’t say, “This should totally be a book!” If you can, I’d love to read it. But, if your reader urges you to create a novel from such an idea, this is a great sign for your next novel. It’s not a good sign for your short story.
Choosing a genre for your short story is difficult because you’ll often be brought out of your comfort zone. Again, there’s no rule saying you can’t write fantasy—I use fantasy as an example because it requires elaborate knowledge of a world, magic, etc.—but it’s almost impossible to write fantasy in a way that doesn’t beg for more. It’s wonderful that you’re able to catch a reader’s attention and make them want more, but the problem with a short story is that there isn’t more. That’s the end of it. You want your reader to be satisfied (usually) like you would want after they read a book you wrote, fiction or nonfiction.
Most short stories are in the literary “genre” because they focus on a character. Characters’ lives are typically plot-creators, and they fit within the parameters of literary.
When you end a novel, you answer all the questions, right? If you’re writing a standalone book, the goal is to answer questions so your reader doesn’t hate the fact that they read it. It’s closure. If it’s a heavily themed book, you might even leave the ending open for interpretation, but you’ll still answer all the necessary questions. This isn’t exactly the same for a short story. However, you do need to answer a question. What you don’t need to do is pretend that you’ll answer a bunch more.
Don’t end your short story like you just wrote Chapter One
A lot of beginning short story writers like to end their short story with a cliffhanger. They end it as if they had just written the first chapter of a book so readers can say, “I want to know more!” Well, that’s not how a short story is meant to work. Not exactly. Your goal isn’t to introduce the conflict at the end. An ending can be open-ended, but it’s not the first chapter of a book. Keep reading and I’ll go into more detail.
You can end with a twist, but don’t end with an introduction
To add to my first point, you’re not introducing a book. You’re starting with a question and ending with either an answer or a series of potential answers. Sometimes, you’ll end up with a question to answer your question. However, that second question isn’t there to tell your reader that they just read a story for nothing because they won’t get closure. That second question presents an opportunity for them to answer it themselves. As an example, if you wrote a fantasy short about two kids who discover a world and try to figure out how they got there, and when one kid is taken at the end of the short by some creature, the other kid wakes up in their parents’ car, there’s an opportunity. Let’s say that kid runs to his friend’s house and he’s not home. You just ended your story with a question but if you did it well, you ended it with the opportunity for the readers to answer for themselves whether the whole thing was a dream or whether the kid is forever trapped in the fantasy world. This does not mean you open the story for Chapter Two: The boy’s parents hadn’t heard from him all day. Main character wasn’t sure what to believe, but he was going to find out.
No. Story is over. He’s not going to find out. So don’t do that to your reader. Endings like this are difficult to do well, but they’re not impossible. Read fantasy short stories (professionally published ones) and learn from them if this is the ending you want to go for. Although it’s not “professionally published,” I have a short story about an alien who needed to be in a colony to survive, but he’d come to Earth to kill humans. In the end, he had to colonize with humans because he was dying; that’s how he adapts and survives. The question I “ended” with was whether they’d accept the alien into their colony, but that was a question left to the reader to answer. The question I answered was whether he’d choose his job and kill humans or choose life and join those he was sent to destroy. I don’t leave readers wondering more than they need to. I shared a snippet of this thing’s life, and I ended that snippet with necessary closure.
End with some kind of answer IMPORTANT
As a shorter example, I’ll use a divorced man who took to drinking and almost ran over a kid. His hospital time with that kid might make him realize how valuable life is, but it doesn’t solve his drinking problem, and it won’t bring his wife back. It will, however, answer one question. It presents additional questions like whether he’ll want to try to get his wife back and whether he will stop drinking, but that’s not important in this snippet, nor will the ending of this story need to hint at the idea that he might…maybe…Stop with the first answer. Your readers will wonder already, so it’s not your job to present the question in an obvious way that makes them think that when they turn the page, there will be more.
Like I said earlier, your story must have a question it needs to answer. Whether the question follows a theme or not is your choice, but a short story isn’t meant to be a prologue or a first chapter. It is its own book. When it ends, that big question you had throughout the story must be answered in some form of action, thought, idea, or something. Otherwise, what are your readers reading for? I keep saying this in different forms, but there are many sides to it.
A short story is a snippet of life. Because of this, keep in mind that you’re not ending the story as if that snippet is all there is. It’s not a happily ever after (usually) or an “everyone died” ending. While both of those aren’t forbidden, short stories are not meant to answer all the questions in a single character’s life.
Why would I write something like this?
We’ve covered a lot of no-nos in short story writing, and I know it all sounds painful and boring. Hang in there, though. Writing short stories are incredible teachers. They teach you how to write concisely. They teach you to remove unnecessary dialogue, scenes, and words you once thought were necessary. Short stories teach you how much impact you can create in so few words. You can become a powerful writer if you master such an incredible, yet overlooked, tool. I haven’t mastered it, and I’m not sure I ever will. It’s hard, but it’s a journey. And it’s worth taking.
If you’d like help writing short stories, this is a great, affordable opportunity to workshop a story and learn what it takes to write a great one. The writing community will also offer workshops soon, so if you join the group, you’ll receive updates when that starts up.
Good luck on your short story journey. Read a lot, then write a lot, then publish a lot. Good luck!