One of my students recently asked me about the difference between short story and novel writing, and I thought it would be a good subject for a post.

In my opinion, there are many similarities, but there are differences too. I have written a novella (unpublished) and I have to say I found even that a very different process to writing short fiction.

First, the similarities

Writing short stories will help you to develop a range of skills that will read across to novel writing – characterisation, dialogue, using flashback, viewpoint and tense, settings and description – you’ll use all of these elements in both short stories and novels. In a novel, you’ll be able to spend more time developing characters and setting (in fact, in some novels, the setting almost becomes a character in its own right). You’ll also be able to include more detailed descriptions in a novel, simply because you aren’t working to the strict word count of a short story.

The key difference

As I see it, the main difference between short fiction and novels lies in the area of structure, plot and pace. You can download a plot diagram for the short story here. The overall shape of the plot is the same for novels and short stories… both build to a high point or story climax. However, with a novel there tends to be peaks and troughs along the way (always climbing towards the turning point or climax of the story). Each chapter of a novel usually ends with a cliffhanger or it will sow a seed of intrigue to hook you into reading on. In the process of resolving one plot element, further complications will often arise in a novel. If the story has a subplot – a suspense novel, for instance, that also has a romantic storyline – the action and tension need to ease off once in a while to allow time for the romantic relationship to develop. In a short story, there’s usually no time for subplots or ‘troughs’. I often liken novels to full-length feature films, and think of short stories as being more like the trailers! Short stories capture the key points and highlights, but don’t necessarily go into great depth or detail.

Time can be a factor

Finally, the other thing to consider with a novel is the amount of time it takes to write one. It can be a real labour of love, but there’s no guarantee of success. The same can be said of short stories, of course, but they take less time to write. Not all novelists can write short stories, and vice versa. Here are a couple of links on the subject. The first is an interview with Roddy Doyle in The Guardian.

The second is a video interview with Stephen King talking about the craft of short story writing. Stephen King famously started his writing career with short stories – and he continues to publish collections of short stories today. If you’ve never read his book ‘ On Writing’ I would urge you to do so. I think it’s the best book on writing out there.

I think if you have a desire to write a novel, you should go for it. Aside maybe from a lack of time, there’s nothing to stop you writing short stories as well. The great thing with short stories is that you get a great sense of achievement and completion when you finish one. They allow you to create something with a beginning, middle and end, and make it the best you can. That skill – of knowing how to see something through to the end – is an important and useful skill that transfers across to novel writing. Lots of people start to write a book and then run out of steam part way through. Pushing yourself towards completion of a novel isn’t easy, but the skills you learn as a short story writer will certainly help.