Writing Tip

Short Story vs. The Novel

The obvious difference between a short story and a novel is well, a short story is shorter. That profound statement did not require a degree in rocket science.

And with a shorter word count, short stories must be easier, right?

There is no hard rule, but as a general frame of reference: a short story is between 1,000 to 20,000 words, but most short stories are between 3,000 and 5,000 words. A novel is anything greater than ~55,000 words.

Having just completed a draft of a short story myself, I’d argue a short story takes less time, but not less skill or thought. Short stories simply require a different approach.

In fact, I think the challenge with short stories is the word count. This provides limited space to intrigue the reader, introduce characters, provide concept of their world, and overcome a dilemma.

How can so much be accomplished in so little?  The best advice is to keep things simple.

Plot – A short story plot must be tight, without twists or shifts, in a singular setting, over a brief time span. A novel is a journey; a short story is one strong scene. There is simply no time for redirection or side tasks. Every word is precious.

Conflict – For a short story, the central conflict needs to be resolvable quickly – this is not the time for an epic journey to Mount Doom. But “quick” does not equate to “predictable” or “boring.”

Characters –  A short story should focus on a small number of characters, in a singular setting, with one goal. There should be one antagonist. No side distractions.

Depth – A novel provides the opportunity become intimate with a character, to explore their thoughts, their weakness, their desires. The reader can be immersed in a new world. With a short story, there is only time for the important facts. Determine the critical aspects of the story, and cut everything else.

Pacing – Novels generally follow a three-act structure. Most short stories provide an “exposition” to set the stage, some form of “climax” or conflict, and then an abrupt ending.

While there are differences, a short story does not excuse the author from good writing. All those recommended practices still apply: show vs. tell, use of strong verbs, strong descriptions for all five senses, etc. You still have to hook the reader.

. . . And, like all writing, the author will still fret over it, be nervous to share with beta readers, lose sleep over queries and second guess themselves with each word. Even though a story may be short, it’s still a personal view into the author’s soul.


What other differences do you find between short stories and novels. Share your thoughts in the comments below!


6 thoughts on “Short Story vs. The Novel”

      1. Short stories seem to leave you wondering about other aspects of the characters’ lives we don’t see. Like what was their childhood like or how did they meet so-n-so, etc. That is, if it’s not a part of the story. It’s like wanting all the scoop on how the characters arrived at that one story point, but it’s left to the reader to assume or fantasize.

        With a novel, it lays out a lot more detail. Not as much guesswork. By the end, the story has more of an impact on how you see the world or question how you’d handle the same thing. Maybe even help you feel less alone knowing someone else (real or fictional) went through the same thing.

        A short story could do the same depending on how it’s written. But novels seem to have more of an emotional grip.


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