Writing a Novel vs. Writing a Short Story

For the first time in my authorly endeavors, I have two major works in progress… in progress.

I’m 60k words into The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy, a sequel-ish novel of 180-200k words that I know I’m not finishing this year.

Simultaneously, I’m 6k words into a duology/novella of about 60k words that I damn well better finish this year.

And after much deliberation and introspection, I can confirm: writing a short story is different from writing a novel.

Novels vs. Short Stories

Apologies for the snark. This really has been a bit of a learning process for me in all the best ways. Going into “Survivor”, my short story duology, I was worried that I didn’t have enough world-building in place to fill in the gaps between the plot points. I didn’t know who my characters were. I didn’t know what mattered.

But for a short story, all of that stuff ends up bogging you down. So here are a few things I’ve started to do as I draft my short story that differ from drafting a novel.

World-Building and exposition are minimal

World-building is the reason I started writing my first novel, and one of the reasons I was excited to write my second. There are so many little nuances you can include to enrich the story.

But for a short story, where word count and page space are at a premium, that world-building has to come in pointed, deliberate ways. I can’t just go on a 200-word tangent about the plant life in my short story’s setting. The inclusion of that information has to serve the narrative in the moment.

You could argue that all world-building has to serve the narrative, and that’s true, but in a short story, there is no room for extraneous content. If I’m including description about a plant and its medicinal (or otherwise) effects when someone ingests it, that information better be pertinent to the story at hand.

All characters are “utility” characters

A frequent complaint among fantasy readers is that it’s occasionally too obvious when an author has included a character just to die, or just to create emotional tension, or just to serve as a temporary foil to the protagonist. Think about the Red Shirts in Star Trek. They existed to create stakes in a given episode, but you knew they would be the first ones killed because of that need.

In a short story, everyone except your protagonist is a utility character. Even the two or three other “main” characters ultimately serve the purpose of driving the protagonist’s story. There is no room for side-plots, so every interaction that the protagonist sees or has with another character has to mean something, and most of those other characters will get very little “screen time” of their own.

Details only matter if they matter to the protagonist

Through writing some action and high-stress moments for my protagonist, I’ve had to make discrete choices about the kinds of things she would observe and notice, the kinds of interactions she would have.

She is not a warrior or a military-minded person, so she’s not going to pay a whole lot of attention to tracks in the dirt, of the types of weapons the enemy carries, or even the markings to distinguish them from another group.

Other characters may be present to provide that detail, but as the author, I don’t have much time to give POV sections to those extra characters. My protagonist has to hear it from them, and then move on.

The “Short” in Short Stories

I hope that all makes sense. I’m not ignoring the world-building or the tertiary characters or the little details in my short story. I just have to think about them differently than if I were writing a novel.

If one side character’s only purpose is to provide two lines of dialogue to inform the protagonist of some important detail, then that character has served their purpose. I don’t have time to build a whole back-story around a two-line character.

Their meaning, their importance, has to derive from the narrative itself, and the protagonist. In a short story, there’s little room for anything else.

Steve D

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