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!