Fiction is such an expansive topic, no? We have genres and categories and sub-categories, and different specs for all.
And then there is the short story, which is a medium all its own.
Have you ever wondered how short stories compare to full-length fiction? If the elements of that story can play into what makes a good novel?
Or, are the two media so different, the twain shall never meet?
As with all things fiction, it depends. Short stories are encapsulated worlds unto themselves. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take the folks from it, this piece of someone’s world, and expand that into a novel.
How? Here are 5 ways to get you going:
- Short stories as a slice of life.
That’s what they are, no? A piece, a seminal point in time, of someone’s world.
But whose life? Can this person carry an entire novel?
What happened to her after the story’s conclusion? Was this it for her, for what was interesting in her life? Or, did what happened here predict future conflict/success?
With the tiny word count at your disposal in the short form, you always want to hint at backstory rather than elaborate. But then, that’s what we do in a longer form as well. Rarely do readers want a play-by-lay of his past drunkenness, or need that to understand him now. “He got drunk again last night,” speaks volumes. In either the long or short form.
We want to give the reader someone to root for. And ah, how wonderful if that reader is willing to follow that character into a larger world.
- As with novels, we open short stories with a hook.
Something to pull in the reader, to cause him to keep going past the first line, the first paragraph, the first page.
If that hook is big enough, impactful enough, speaks to something larger in the main character’s life and world in general, it can most certainly translate to a novel. In fact, that’s exactly what makes a good novel, as well as a good short story.
Even though we’ve focused on this one moment in time for our character, short stories still need a beginning, middle and end. The 3-act structure still comes into play.
Yes, a short story is a microcosm of a novel. With, yes, very little time to get those elements in!
Start as close to the end of the story as you possibly can. Weave in those tags of backstory. Get us to what’s happening here and now.
Plunge your character into treachery and trouble from the get-go.
Then, play that conflict out. Go through the stages, albeit briefly. Get to the climax.
Doesn’t that sound like the prescription for a good novel as well?
- Tighten the violin strings.
Nowhere is tight writing more required than in a short piece. You just get so few words with which to portray everything about the people and place and plot on the page.
Writing short stories is a great exercise for penning novels. It teaches you to pare down the prose, cut anything not vital, go deeper and deeper into the point in the fewest amount of words possible.
When studying and writing the short form, you learn by feel to axe the ancillary in order to leave only the gems exposed and shining.
Isn’t that what you want for your novel as well?
- Identify the heart of your story. Aim for that heart.
Especially in short form, with so little time and space, we want our readers to viscerally feel these seminal moments, these slices of life with the true meaning. That’s what makes them powerful; what makes your reader remember them long after THE END.
In a short story, you’ll need at least one “moment” on every page. All leading up to the final paragraph and sentence, where everything comes together in one wham of meaning, after building to it throughout.
And isn’t that what you strive for with your novel?
One of my favorite endings came from a novella. Yes, another different medium. But novellas somewhat bridge the two.
Whenever I think of the final sentence in A River Runs Through It, I still tear up. Everything from start to finish leads up to this line:
“I am haunted by waters.”
Writing short fiction isn’t for everybody. Many writers run screaming from the room when asked to do so (I’ve seen this many times when teaching/speaking at literary conferences!).
But mastering the art form will serve you so well as a novelist. And sometimes, a full-length work comes from it, as it has for one of mine, recently published in the collection, Over the Pass and Other Stories. The final story in that collection, “The Summer the Rats Came,” led to the writing of an entire full-length novel.
So give the short form a go. What do you have to lose? Only ancillary prose 🙂