Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guest Author Diana Bocco: How Short Stories and Novels Are Different

By Diana Bocco

I'd like to welcome Diana Bocco to the blog today to chat with us about the differences between writing short stories and novels. I'm always impressed with short story writers, because that's a skill that doesn't come naturally to me. I tend to think in 60K word sizes, and writing a short story always takes way more brain power than a novel. But there are a lot of benefits to writing shorts, and I know quite a few writers who have been very successful at it. If you've ever thought about trying a shirt story, Diana has some great tips and things to think about before you dive in.

Diana is a full-time freelance writer, editor and writing coach. She teaches short-story and freelance writing workshops (both group and one-on-one) and is getting ready to launch her own horror magazine. Diana is the author of “How They Did It: 25 bloggers, authors and writers share all their secrets about earning a living and how you can do it too” as well as the horror anthology, “Don’t Turn the Lights On” . An incurable globetrotter, Diana has lived and worked in New York City, Buenos Aires, Siberia, Hanoi and currently resides in Bangkok. You can read more about her and her work on her website.

Take it away Diana...

Many writers who excel at writing short stories have never penned a novel. O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Carver are good examples. The reason? Short stories and novels might seem similar, but they’re actually worlds apart. Probably the biggest challenge for new writers is accepting that short stories are not “a novel in short form.”

An easy way to understand the differences is to think of a short story as a window into a larger story you don’t get to see. It’s like a flash goes off and you get a chance to observe 10 minutes into the life of a character. You might not get a big insight into his background, how he got there and who he is–you just get to see him in that moment in time, in that particular situation.

There are other differences to consider:

The scope of the events in a short story is usually much smaller, focusing on a single climatic event. If you’re going to tell us a story about how a group of friends gets together and goes on a hiking trip, only to get lost and encounter a killer in the woods, you’ll need a novel. A short story, on the other hand, would start with the characters encountering the killer and trying to survive a single attack.

A short story is usually centered on just one character. Sure, you can have supporting characters helping the story develop, but the story is about one particular character in one particular moment on time. If you’re going to talk about how a nuclear attack affects a whole town, you’re going to need a novel to get the story across. However, if you want to show us what happens to a specific character on the 30 minutes after the bombs struck, then you’re looking at a short story. Because there’s only one main character to follow, you’re also looking to a single POV, while novels can alternate POVs successfully.

Short stories usually span a short period of time. Sure, you have the occasional story that jumps months or years ahead, but those are the exception. In general, you get to share the life of the character over the period of an hour or a day, often in a single shot, without interruptions. It’s easier to convey jumps on time in a novel.

Short stories have a single plot line. In order for the suspense to build and the climax to develop well, you can’t distract readers with secondary story lines or unimportant details. On a novel, the opposite is true–you need supporting characters with their own story lines and conflicts to help advance the story and make the reading more interesting.

Perhaps the most important difference is that short stories are less permanent. The events of a novel shape a character so at the end of the story he’s irremediably changed and his life completely altered. A short story doesn’t need to achieve that–in fact, a short story cannot truly achieve that. We can see the beginnings of the change, a spark for the events that’ll come long after the story is over, but there’s much missing that we never get to experience with the character. That doesn’t mean short stories are incomplete–they’re just a different way of looking at the story.

When I was in college, I had a professor who used to say short stories were like a roller coaster. You get there, you jump in, you experience the emotions of the ride, and you’re off. Novels are more like the whole theme park. You ride the roller coaster, but you also get to experience other rides and have some ice cream in between.


  1. Great post. Short stories and novels are very different forms, as I've discovered when I've tried to change gears. It's important for a novel writer tackling short stories for the first time to recognize when he or she is "thinking in novels" and vice versa.

  2. Great post. Short stories and novels are very different forms, as I've discovered when I've tried to change gears. It's important for a novel writer tackling short stories for the first time to recognize when he or she is "thinking in novels" and vice versa.

  3. Wow! Super way to describe the difference. And I love the break down: This is short, this is novel. So clear. Thank you!

  4. I love writing short stories. It's that I don't have to explain the person's entire life which really appeals to me. I can concentrate on one incident and let the rest fall away. Great article.

  5. Great post. Very well said! I especially enjoyed the analogy at the end about the rollercoaster and theme park. Very apt.

  6. I'm a short story writer and explaining to my friends why it's so much harder for me to write a novel doesn't always come across to them. This post will make it easier!

  7. Thanks so much for this. I've only written novels, and I'm planning on some short stories to have in between releases, but I know I'm going to have to do some serious learning. This will be a big help.

  8. I would add that when writing within a specified word count (for a short story contest, as example), it teaches you to be succinct because every word you use must say just the right thing and no more. Great article.

  9. Short stories help me with my novels. I had an idea for a short story and started writing and it helped me get back in touch with the new novel's first draft. I may go back and tinker with the short and spruce it up, but it helped spur me to write.