I am a fan of the humble short story – so much so that I am currently constructing a novel out of them. But it’s an underrated medium, one that is almost feared by both authors and the publishing industry, its very genre like a plague cross on the blurb or product overview.
Most writers go for novels. Novels are great. Novels are meaty, delicious things. But if you find yourself struggling to get to the end of your manuscript with the required wordcount, or you feel there’s just something missing, your story may not yet be cut out for the hefty wad of pages you think it deserves.
The key word here is yet, for fear not, my friends – these are the signs to look out for, and ways you might be able to fix them:
- No subplot. If your novel doesn’t have a subplot… Well, you’d have to be an incredible artful writer to carry a whole novel on one single premise. If your novel is the delicious, meaty steak we alluded to earlier, the subplot is the carefully chosen sauce to accompany it. It enhances the main plot but doesn’t overpower; it enriches the plate, but isn’t the main feature. A skillfully done subplot barely announces its presence and leaves you feeling full and satisfied. (Okay, we’re done with this steak metaphor now, I swear.) How to fix it: This one is quite simple. Put in a subplot! But make sure it’s relevant.
- You’re underwriting. If you finish your story to your satisfaction and it’s barely hit 30,000 words, it’s not even a novella. But a short story often isn’t short: unlike novels, there is no set length. Shorter fiction tends to be called flash fiction (these are usually under 2,000 words, maximum), but at the other end of the scale there’s almost no limit. Thirty thousand words could feasibly be a short story.
How to fix it: Ask yourself if it needs fixing. Are you happy with it at this length? If so, hooray. If not, consider point one and check your subplots. And then consider all the other points in this list.
- It explores a very specific theme or event. Short stories tend to be much more limited in scope than a novel. You could have two stories about the same event – let’s take 9/11, as it’s so well-known. A novel may focus on the prelude to the event, the event itself, and the aftermath, following one or more characters through their journey. It may go even further back or forward, giving greater context to the story. A short story about 9/11 may focus on one person, or group of people, or period of time – a passenger on a plane, or a worker in one of the towers. How to fix it: Does it need fixing? If so, consider what about this story may be interesting to the reader – what questions do they have? Is there anything you’ve left unanswered that could add nuance or detail or a new perspective?
- It has a very specific style. Granted, there are novels that take on a particular style and carry it through, but these can be challenging (hello, Ulysses). Style is the way you construct your writing: sentence structure, grammatical style, use of dialect or languages, that kind of thing. One stylistic quirk I have, for example, is a reliance on semicolons to join my various run-on sentences. Style can be tempered to suit the piece of work – my semicolon habit works well in a short story, but it would become tedious and distracting in a novel. A distinctive style in your work-in-progress may indicate it could be better suited as a short story. How to fix it: You could consider toning down the style to make it more palatable in the long run. If you don’t fancy doing that, introducing another perspective, written in another style – distinctive or otherwise – could break up the intensity. Or just go all-out and write the whole novel that way. I’m not saying it won’t work, but it’s going to be more challenging to sustain the reader’s engagement for the length of the novel.
- Limited characters. Limited in number, quests, or scope. You could write a piece on the thoughts of a man in his final hour of a terminal illness; it would be unlikely to be something of novel length or appropriateness. If that final hour also encompassed the perspectives of his friends, family, the doctors, a hospital cleaner… you may be on to something. One man’s perspective on one single event with one single outcome is unlikely to carry you for 80,000+ words. How to fix it: Consider broadening what you have in place already. Are there other perspectives to consider? To borrow a little from Kurt Vonnegut, if all your character wants is a glass of water – what next? Is he satisfied? Or does he want a cookie as well?
- You’re not into world-building. Short stories are great for those ideas you have which are set in fantastical or dystopian worlds, but you don’t fancy the heavyweight world-building that goes with it. Two of my current short stories feature fantastical elements: one a break in the time-space continuum, and one a plant with magical properties. Suspension of disbelief grows stronger the fewer words there are, and readers are more forgiving of gaps than they would be in a full-length novel. If I turned either of the above examples into novels, I wouldn’t be able to get away with it without extensive research into various elements of physics and botany I have no real desire to explore. How to fix it: If you want to write a fantasy or dystopian novel, or any lengthy work which takes place too far beyond the realms of reality, I’m afraid you’ll need to world-build. If this really doesn’t appeal, you can trim your piece down to a short story. The compromise here is that you need to find some familiarity within the unreality – I got round this by anchoring the first example on a London Tube train, and the plant in the second story is inspired by a commonly known drug.
- The idea just isn’t working – as a novel. We’ve all had that experience of getting halfway or two-thirds into a story and losing all motivation to finish it. Usually it can be recovered, but when it can’t – why not edit it down? If an idea of yours isn’t working out the way you want to, use the opportunity to craft a shorter piece that showcases your skills. Think of your novel as someone you’ve been casually dating – you’ve realised this probably isn’t a long-term thing, but there’s no reason why you can’t have fun with it until it runs its course. (Credit to Boyfriend for this analogy. Perhaps I should be worried.) How to fix it: Trim your work down. Limit the scope, take out unnecessary back-story or world-building, and explore using a different style than before. Essentially do most of the points I listed above.
So those are my tips for figuring out whether you have a short story masquerading as a novel. And, of course, if you find yourself with the reverse problems – there’s too much going on, you’ve overwriting, your subplots are getting all tangled in themselves and you still have to write the dictionary for the language you’ve decided to invent – then perhaps your short story is fighting to be a novel.
Have you ever had this problem? How did you fix it? Let me know in the comments below.