Sometimes, when I’m editing a short story for someone, I look up at the end and say, “Hey…that wasn’t a short story.”
Sure, the page count was right. There were characters and plot. But something was missing.
Like about 98,000 words.
A lot of times, people who have invested a lot of time in creating an imaginary world with lots of complex characters decide they want to write a short story about it.
But they don’t usually write a short story. They write an excerpt. Maybe it’s a really good excerpt, but short stories should be able to stand alone.
How can you tell if you’ve done this? Here are some common features of novels-disguised-as-short-stories.
- They have a ton of backstory. This can be on the characters or the world itself. If you find yourself writing three paragraphs on how a certain kind of yak acquired magical powers in their hair, or if you want to tell us the family lineage of your heroine and how the various family relationships have affected her, you’re writing a novel.
- People who read it say things like, “I can’t wait to read the rest of this.” That’s a compliment on your writing, because it means they enjoyed it. However, it also means the story doesn’t stand alone.
- The ending isn’t really an ending. Since it’s part of a longer chain of events in your mind, most of the time, there are conflicts introduced that are never resolved. And the reader ends the last paragraph and says, “That’s it?”
My advice? If you’re going to write a novel, just write it. Don’t try to cram it into a short story. It’s a scary and intimidating thing to start out on, but it will be worth it in the end.
But if you still really want to use characters from a potential novel, just to try out your ideas, make sure you focus on one moment of time. Try to answer one specific question about your characters or your world (“What happened that made him decided to join the group working for the Black Market?” “How did the two sweethearts meet?” “When did he know he wanted to be an artist?”) That way, the short story will feel like a scene…but one with a definite conclusion that will satisfy the reader.
If you’re still wondering how to tell if your idea is a short story or a novel, think about it in terms of Pixar movies and animated shorts. Monsters Inc. is about two monsters who accidentally let a supposedly toxic child into their world, and, while trying to return her to her home, come to care about her and simultaneously uncover a corporate conspiracy. “For the Birds” is about how an awkward, loveable bird teaches a judgmental flock a lesson. One is complex, with many subplots and characters, while the other is simpler and has one central focus.
Each one is brilliant at telling the story it does, but imagine what would happen if the animators had tried to stretch the bird story into a two-hour movie or cram Mike and Sulley’s adventure into a three-minute slot.