Is Your Idea a Novel or a Short Story?

You’ve come up with a brilliant idea. How do you decide whether the idea is suitable for a novel or a short story? While sometimes you just instinctively know, other times you may be stumped. Let me offer a few points to consider that may save you days, weeks, or months of writing only to discover that you’re heading in an unpromising direction.

There are two other reasons to identify your project’s structure early. First, if you’ve experienced writer’s block with a story that initially had high promise, it’s possible that your case of writer’s block stems from not choosing the best format. Second, it’s also possible that comments from editors’ rejection letters such as “not enough conflict” or “pacing too slow” may be signs that you’re telling too little story for a long form, and comments such as “too many characters to keep track of” or “plot too confusing” may indicate that you’re telling too much story for a short form.

There are a few essential elements that both short stories and novels have in common: a compelling premise, a compelling character with a compelling goal, and compelling conflict. Both forms have a beginning, middle, and end. Did I mention compelling?

What is a short story?

In short stories everything is condensed. There’s no time for subplots, and there’s a limited number of characters. Short stories capture a significant moment in time—often a snippet of time in the character’s life.

What is a novel?

Obviously novels are longer. What fills these extra pages? More characters, more complex plots, and a longer time span. The added length allows for a deeper exploration of main characters, however shorter lengths are no excuse for cardboard characters.

Is Your Idea a Novel or a Short Story? by Victoria M. Johnson

How to decide

Start with your end in mind.

What does your character have to confront or overcome to achieve his goal? If that path can be shown to the reader in a compelling way without too many characters, without a subplot, and without a lot of layers of revelation, perhaps you have a short story. If your character has to undergo much trial and tribulation to achieve his growth and change; if his actions affect many others and the reader needs to see those other characters and the impact on them; if subplots add more significance to the goal, theme, or resolution, then perhaps you have a novel.


What do you want to say with your piece?

Whatever message you hope your reader gets, ask yourself if you can convey that message with the form you’ve selected. Of course, you never want to hit readers over the head with the moral of your story; rather, you want all the elements of the story to lead the reader to that “hidden” message.

Michael Crichton’s novel Next tells a riveting tale that leads readers to his theme of the real-world catastrophic mess concerning gene patents. The novel is as fascinating and fast-paced as any of his books, and I was convinced by the end of it that gene patent procedures in this country needed a drastic overhaul. I don’t believe he could have conveyed this theme so convincingly in a short story.

On the other hand, Annie Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain” uses a relationship between two gay men in a time and place where homosexuality is unacceptable to draw the reader in. Proulx skillfully provides insight into a theme of intolerance with strong characters and gripping conflict all in about 15,000 words.


Does your idea have enough conflict to sustain a novel?

If it doesn’t, you have a short story. Going back to comments from editors about the lack of conflict, don’t try to add conflict with arguments and petty bickering. Editors can spot weak conflict a mile away. Successful novelists prolong conflict throughout their books by altering, twisting, and elevating it. Static conflict causes all sorts of problems (which is an article by itself). No matter what length your project becomes, when the conflict’s resolved, the story is over. Tie up all the loose ends and finish it.

Once you decide where you want to take your idea, dive in. Whether your project ends up as a short story or as a novel, make it compelling. Say what you want to say with confidence, and have fun. Enjoy the burst of creativity a new idea brings.

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