Is a novel just a long short story?
You’ve decided to write a novel. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write the novel that been inside you for a long time. You think that it can’t be all that hard—a little scary maybe, but not impossible, because lots of people have written novels. You see a lot of self-published novels coming out. If they can do it, why not you?
Let’s say you’ve already written one or more short stories (or maybe not) and one or more was published (or maybe not). You think that if someone published your work, then it must be good, and you must be a good writer. Great. It’s time to take the next step. Nothing is stopping you. You’re going to do it. You’re going to write a novel!
With easy self-publishing available, novel writers are coming out of the woodwork. Some are writers whose work publishers rejected are now publishing their work. Others are first-timers.
Before you leap into writing that novel, let’s consider the question posed by the title of this blog post: Is a novel just a long short story?
The answer is a definite “NO!”
Apart from their length, novels and short stories are quite different beasts. Granted, sometimes what begins as a short story ends up growing into a novel, but the resulting novel (assuming it’s a good novel) is more than just a short story that outgrew its body.
While length is the most obvious difference between the two, it’s the least important difference. In a novel, the length is important only for what it allows you to do that the short story often limits us from doing. Writing something 50,000 words or longer can seem daunting, but writing a novel is a lot more than putting your thoughts on the page. Let’s list the other differences between the two forms, the ones that matter more than length.
(1) TIME SPAN: In general, novels allow us a wider sweep in time for the events to take place. A novel can span one day, several days, months, years, or centuries, but I don’t find too many short stories (except perhaps some of the longer ones) that can easily and successfully cover more than a few days or weeks in time. A novel allows the writer more flexibility. But you also have to learn how to control that flexibility.
(2) STORY COMPLEXITY: Because we do have more space to work in, a novel allows the writer to explore the story and its elements in greater depth and detail and to add and develop complicating subplots without being rushed. This also means that you have to go beyond a simple story in order to keep it interesting. Complexity means twists and turns problems for the characters. A non-complex story becomes boring very quickly.
(3) NUMBER OF CHARACTERS: A longer form gives the writer the option of a richer cast of characters, although novels have been written with only one or two characters. But the more characters you add, the more you and the reader must keep track of.
(4) CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: A longer form permits more room to develop the characters. (More on this in a moment)
You might be tempted to add impact to this list, but I’ve read stories of only a few hundred words that have more impact than many novels. Greater length does not automatically translate into greater impact. Your job as the writer is to make sure all those words together carry sufficient impact.
The ability to immerse the reader more in the story is another difference, but I left it off the list because immersion is a result of flexibility that having a longer story allows. Just because a story is longer doesn’t mean it will immerse the reader more. Reader involvement depends far more on the author’s skill in handling the plot elements than it does on the word count.
But the real purpose of this post is not to discuss the differences between short stories and novels, but to tell you how HARD it is to write a good novel. Short stories can be challenging enough, as evidenced by the number of good-but-not-great submissions my wife and I receive for Fabula Argentea magazine (although admittedly we are very fussy).
It’s precisely because of their length that makes good novels very hard to write. The difference between a good novel and a mediocre one has nothing to do with how many it sells because more than a few mediocre novels have become “bestsellers.” The difference mediocre and good novels is the difference between those we merely enjoy versus those that leave an impression on us and that we want to read again. The best novels shine because the story is good, the writing is good, and the characters in them are memorable.
And that leads me to one of the main reasons novels are hard to write: character development. Take a look at the article link below.
MASTERING CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Character development is not the only hard thing about novels. While developing the character (as if that weren’t hard enough), the writer must simultaneously be able manipulate story elements to build tension, control the flow, and still keep the reader involved. If the writer fails at ANY of these (weak/uninteresting characters, slow plot, uninteresting plot), the novel will suffer. (And these are apart from bad writing and grammar.)
These are all things that very few beginning writers are aware of, let alone understand. They so interested in getting their words onto the page (and proud of how many words they’ve written) that they don’t realize they’ve bored, confused, or lost the reader.
Writers who don’t understand these important aspects of story development can get so wrapped up in pouring out their thoughts that they forget about the reader completely. Sometimes what’s in their head doesn’t make it into the manuscript, at least not in a way that makes sense for the reader. The continuity of the story is missing or jumbled. And the longer the story is, the harder it is to put all the pieces into the right places. When it comes to character development, beginning writers forget that characters do need to change.
What’s my advice to you? Don’t rush the novel. Periodically take a step back and examine what you’ve written to be sure that all the important details in your head made it into the manuscript and that you didn’t overdo it. Make sure the story flows well and logically. Make sure that your characters are interesting (not just to you, but to the reader) and dynamic (that they are growing and changing).
This is why I’ve stressed character development so much in the past. Characters are central to the story because a story is something that is happening to your characters, not just something you’re telling to the reader. The only way that can happen is if your characters are three-dimensional entities, not robots that populate the story and spew mundane dialog at your command.
The reader needs to care about what happens to the characters, at least your protagonist, just as it’s important that there’s something at stake in the story for the reader to care about as well. I’ve seen many reviewers say that while the story was okay, they didn’t really care what happened to the characters.
You’re not the only one who needs to care what happens to the characters. If the reader doesn’t care, then you’ve failed to do your job.
Those, my friends, are the reasons that novels are hard to write well and why they take time to write. Don’t let these stop you from writing that novel, but if you ignore them, then don’t expect the result to anything less than mediocre.
HINT: A good outline and detailed bios of your important characters can help you here.