Short Story or Novel? The First Tricky Decision

Ideas come in many shapes and sizes. Some need the room afforded by a full novel to be explored. Others work better in shorter forms. It’s common enough wisdom that short stories can be harder to write than novels, but it’s worth exploring why.

A novel is a world that your readers will live in for many hours. They expect that world to be fully decorated and furnished when they move in. Novels require extensive world-building and character development and all the good things. There’s room to move around inside a novel, plenty of time for things to grow organically.

Short stories, on the other hand, are high speed train rides from point A to point B. A story needs to race along, with no time for extraneous features like exposition or character growth.

It’s almost like they’re two different art forms.

When you’re writing a short, every sentence counts and you can’t afford to waste them. As a result, writing a short is an exercise in austerity. Does your story really need to be set in a secondary world or a different time period? It’s so much quicker to put it in a contemporary, primary world setting–unless the point of the story is the difference between this world and another. How many characters does your story need? Can you cut it down to two–or even one? How many scenes do you really need? How many lines of dialogue? Everything in the story needs to do work towards making your point, selling one single emotion or defining a single character. Everything else must go.

You may end up spending as much time making these tough decisions as you do on primary composition.

Writing a novel requires its own processes and decisions, though. Is your story rich enough to carry you through a lengthy and satisfying character arc? Do you have enough ideas to flesh out a plot skeleton to 70-100,000 words? How much world detail can you pack in to each scene, how can you make the setting a dynamic character in itself? Conversely, if your novel is working, if it sings, you’ll find that you actually need all that space–every little moment you create needs the extra oxygen, the extra elbow-room, to blossom and become something wonderful.

I often find when I start a new novel that on page one I can’t imagine how I’m going to get to 300 pages. I always feel, on the last page, that I wish I had 300 more.

Deciding whether your idea should be the basis for a short story or a novel is the first tough decision you’ll make with each project. It’s possible to make the wrong decision–you may find that your idea is drowning in all that extra space, and that if it was cut down into a story it could be so much more powerful. You may realize that your short story feels naked and skeletonized and like it never got a chance to really grow. So make sure you make the right choice the first time! Or learn the wisdom to know the difference between these two very different forms.

Now, as for novellas…

Yeesh. Traditionally novellas got little love because they were hard to sell. Even today, editors typically want full novels or they want a short piece for an anthology. The advent of eBooks, however–which can be any length the author chooses–has opened up new opportunities for what was once considered a bastard form.

There’s really not even an “official” word count for the poor novella. I’ve heard 50,000 words as a good length, but I’ve seen novellas that were 90,000 words long, and some that were 35 (don’t even ask me about “novelettes” or “long stories”).

The novella might be defined as a novel with less emphasis on worldbuilding and character development–with some of the laser focus of a short story. Alternatively it could give the full novel treatment to a more limited range of characters, or to a compressed span of time (a novella might, say, all take place in a single day, or over the duration of a long ocean voyage).

But the true beauty of the novella is that there are no rules. You can make it as long or as short as you need it to be. You can fill it with an extensive cast of characters, each of whom only get a scant few scenes to shine. You could create a whole, rich world and pair it with a simplified, athletically skinny plot. You do you.

Just… do yourself a favor. Know which form you’re using before you start writing. You can save yourself from a lot of painful editing later, and your story will be the better for it.

Subjectivity and Time in Prose

I want to talk about the way time functions inside a story–specifically within prose fiction. It’s all about subjectivity.

This may be the crucial difference between books and movies, actually. Time is a director’s medium–in a movie time can be measured in footage, in actual minutes of runtime. You know how long it will take a viewer to watch a movie, and you can build your scenes around exactly how many seconds they’ll last. Writers of prose don’t have these tools at their fingertips. A reader might take six hours to read a book or six months. Their experience of time passing in a story is therefore much more subjective, and that’s where the real difference lies, in that very subjectivity.

Movies are typically objective in their scope–they are a relating of events that happened in the world; prose stories are far more subjective, exploring the psychological state of a character, how they feel and react to the events of plot. Think of the difference between a third-person and a first-person video game. The latter is all about What Happened. The latter is about what Someone Saw.

This subjectivity allows time in prose to be much more fluid than it is in the movies. It’s true movies can jump around in time, or contain subjective flashbacks, but film isn’t nearly as nimble as prose can be in this regard. A writer of prose fiction can jump back and forth in time within the space of a single sentence–recall the memories of a character or delve into their subjective experience of an event, spending pages exploring a single second of real time.

Subjective time affects every element of a story.

Time is always an element of setting–you can write a story that takes place over the events of one special summer, or the life of a character who lives to old age, or you can tell a story that happens all in one hour. Subjective time makes it possible to stretch a single moment to fill an entire book, as in Nicholson Baker’s wonderful Mezzanine, which takes place entirely over the time it takes a character to ride an escalator between two floors of a building.

Subjective time is crucial to the tone of a piece. A slow, languid story full of reminiscence and regret will feel very different from an action-packed plot full of cliffhangers and sudden reversals.

It has a major effect on characters. The more subjective time that passes during a story, the deeper the characters become, the more they will be changed by their experiences. If time is sped up and breathlessly hurtles forward, characters won’t have a chance to reflect on their own actions–which may be what you want for your story.

The structure of a story can be radically remolded by subjective time. You can put gaps in time into your story that allow us to see a character at different points in their life. You can go back and revisit events that happened long before the beginning of the story, or start in media res, or even tell a story backwards, showing us how the climax of your tale developed inescapably from prior events. Iain M. Banks uses this to brutal and undeniable effect in Use of Weapons, one of his best books, which contains two parallel narratives flowing in opposite directions through time (if that makes no sense, just read the book–it’s well worth your, ahem, time).

And of course time is the fundamental element of plot. You should always have a clear idea of the timeline of your story (even if you don’t share this timeline with your readers). The strict rationing of time can kick your story into a higher gear. Giving your characters deadlines to meet forces them to take action, forces them to make decisions. Strict rationing of time keeps events from getting bogged down–it’s absolutely one of the best ways to create dramatic tension.

The One-and-a-Half World

Verisimilitude is one of the most powerful devices at the author’s disposal. The ability to create a world that feels real can separate a good story from a great one. Readers are much more easily drawn into a world with systems and rules they already comprehend, and characters that feel real are characters who can evoke an emotional response.

In genre writing, though, “realness” can be tricky. The real world is boring! That’s why we want to escape it, right? It’s so tempting to give up on realism altogether, to create what is called a “Secondary World”, that is, one with its own rules and laws, one where magic replaces technology, maybe–a world where even the basic laws of physics require lengthy exposition. Such worlds can be incredible escapes, but they often fail to resonate with readers looking for meaning and humanity.

Good genre authors know how to walk the line, to create a world that is neither too real, nor entirely secondary–one with real and potent connections to the Earth we currently inhabit, but still including elements of the fantastic, of the alien, of the monstrous. They create a “heightened” reality where you can usually count on real world rules–and when they’re broken, it’s for a good reason.

This one-and-a-half world looks a lot like ours. It’s probably still called Earth, and it probably doesn’t include faster than light travel or commonplace magic. If there are monsters in this world they tend to hide in the shadows. If there are aliens, they may not show themselves at all–instead choosing to influence Earth through fleeting psychic contact with chosen humans who, should they choose to share their received wisdom, are unlikely to be widely believed.

Yet it isn’t exactly our world. Things that happen there are very slightly larger than life. More dramatic, more emotionally powerful. People obsess over breakups years after you and I would have moved on. They are capable of acts of incredibly heroics that, in the real world, would put real people in the hospital or the morgue. The rules here are never ignored–but they can be bent, when it makes a story more interesting.

Though every one-and-a-half world will have its own exceptions to real world rules, here are a few suggestions to get you thinking about how your own story can benefit from lurking on the threshold:

1. In the 1.5 world, magic exists, but it’s subtle. An actual wizard who could turn lead into gold or pull unlimited rabbits from a hat would change everything. The world we know would be transformed overnight–it would quickly become unrecognizable. In a 1.5 world magic can exist but only if it can be easily mistaken for stagecraft and sleight of hand–or if its effects are temporary, contingent, and subjective. Psychic powers just feel more realistic than your classic staff of fireballs.

2. There are very few safety codes there. You’re probably no more than a few dozen yards, right now, from a gas main. Your house has enough electricity in it to kill you a dozen times over. The only reason explosions are not an everyday event in your life is that teams of very dedicated engineers have worked for decades to make your life safe. The 1.5 world would be a terrible place to live, but it makes for dramatic stories. Anything that could reasonably explode probably will, and houses burn down all the time. Guns are much more accurate, and yet bullets can, under certain circumstances, be dodged. They’re also highly selective–one bullet will almost always kill a villain, while a hero can take five or six torso hits and still have enough strength to avenge their dead partner.

3. Conversations are much shorter. Mostly because people in the 1.5 world are far more likely to tell the truth. Think about all the conversations you had today–how often did you actually speak your mind, or express your true emotions and preferences? Dialogue in the 1.5 world is pithier, wittier, and much more concise than in the real world. Important characters never stumble over their words and they always have a joke at the ready. They’re still riddled with self-doubt and indecision; they just don’t sound like it.

4. Technobabble is kept to a minimum. In science fiction it’s way too easy to invoke futuristic technology to solve a problem. “I know it looked like I was decapitated, but the nanites in my blood built a collagen scaffolding and regrew my damaged tissues in a matter of moments!” You can always adjust the fundamental field harmonic to overcome the inverted triangle problem and rectify a plasma field at fourteen terawatts. At least, you can if you’re okay with your technology being indistinguishable from magic–and thereby breaking your hoped-for verisimilitude. In the 1.5 world you need to at least have a rough idea as to what all of your technospeak means–and you need to find a way to make sure the reader understands it, too. That means being able to explain your technology to someone who failed physics in high school. The tech level in the 1.5 world is–at most–ten years ahead of ours. Hand waving and invoking alien technology will always feel like cop outs in a world where smartphones are still the height of human achievement.

There’s nothing wrong with stories set in secondary worlds. Some of the classics of genre fiction take place in universes completely unconnected to the here and now. Yet think about how many of those stories really feel character-driven, how many of them you still have an emotional connection with years later. Try visiting the 1.5 world some time, and see if your story doesn’t immediately feel more resonant, real meaningful.

Bad Advice: Single Biome Worlds

It’s one of the great cliche responses to science fiction. “Earth has dozens of different biomes, but every planet in sci fi is just one thing, either it’s all desert or all frozen or…”

It’s easy to see why this bothers so many people watching science fiction movies. It’s very true that Earth has a wide range of climates and terrain, from snowswept mountains to dense, fetid swamps to arctic deserts and mist forests. When a planet in a work of science fiction is homogeneous from pole to pole, it feels like the creators are taking a shortcut. They’re being lazy.

But there are very good reasons why we keep seeing single-biome worlds in fiction. For one thing–as shortcuts go, it’s a great one. If you have multiple planets to depict, as in Star Wars, it allows you to instantly set them off from each other. You know by simple lighting cues and color palettes if a scene is set on Tattooine or Dagobah or Hoth. You don’t need to keep putting titles on the screen telling us where we are.

Furthermore it allows you to develop a landscape even if the characters move from place to place on the same planet. A consistent setting can grow and develop depth, whereas you just don’t have room to describe fifty different biomes in the same book, say.

This concern over single biome worlds didn’t start with Star Wars. It was old even when Dune was at its heyday. Arrakis is desert from pole to pole. It’s literally called the “Desert Planet”. This makes it the butt of one of the oldest tropes in sf criticism. Yet Herbert wasn’t trying to create a lushly diverse world in Dune. He was specifically trying to create a world which appears to be empty and hostile to life. What J.G. Ballard would call “psychic zero”–the same desolate landscape that is the setting for most of the Bible, a place where his zensunni warriors could test themselves both physically and spiritually. He also wanted to show the life cycle of the sandworms, which is so complex they may be the only living things on Arrakis, pre the arrival of humans. It’s funny that Dune, which is often called the first ecological science fiction novel, started this trend of worrying so much about biological diversity.

Looking outside the science fiction world, we can find a pretty solid defense of the single-biome planet as well–we need only look at the actual universe we live in. While Earth is home to multiple habitats and giant variations in its weather patterns, it turns out that it’s the exception, not the rule.

Wherever we look in our own solar system, we find nothing but single-biome worlds. Mars is cold, dry, and dusty. The polar caps are slightly different, but only slightly. Mercury is even more homogeneous, with maybe a few patches of water ice in craters at its poles–otherwise it’s nothing but sunblasted rock. Venus is shrouded in such a dense atmosphere that its entire surface is just molten rock and maybe liquid metals.

Beyond the orbit of Mars, diversity in planetary surfaces drops off considerably. The four giant planets are nothing but unitary weather patterns. Their moons are almost universally made of ice and rock in equal measure. Titan has methane lakes and deserts of electric sands, but again, it sticks out for its incredible wealth of biomes (two, maybe three). Beyond Neptune, there is nothing but an endless succession of Hoths. Worse than Hoths, because they lack the atmosphere to even have variable weather.

The criticism that worlds in science fiction are too samey, too much of a piece, is perfectly legitimate when we’re talking about planets exactly like Earth–planets with incredible genetic diversity, planets where life has sculpted the environment into biomes that favor individual species’ reproductive success. But please, when you’re creating worlds for your own sf stories, don’t feel obliged to throw rain forests onto your alpine planet. You don’t need them, and despite what anyone says, they aren’t all that realistic anyway.

From Twee to Grime: Tone Gone Bad

Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.

Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.

Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.

The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.

There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.

Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.

Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.

Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.

Setting: Don’t Get Lost

Creating a rich and fascinating setting for your story is fun. It’s so much fun. And it can be rewarding, too. The more work you put into your setting, the more detail and depth, the more your book will come alive–if the backdrop seethes and breathes, your characters will feel more real, more anchored, and it’s also like you’re giving them another actor to play to. More business for them to do (“he picked an orange from the vendor’s cart and pressed it to his nose, inhaling the scent of far-off Valyria, while he ignored the viscount’s leading question”), more set-pieces to escape from, more, more, more.

And that’s the trap: too much setting. Setting requires a lot of research (or at least a lot of pondering) and when you learn something while writing a book, the temptation to tell your readers all about it can be overwhelming. You can spend whole chapters talking about the average humidity and rainfall that your Antarctic research station sees. Sometimes readers love this stuff, and eat it up with a spoon. Other times it takes them right out of the narrative. Your plot disappears and your book becomes about polar meteorology. Did you intend to write a book about polar meteorology? If not, well… now you are.

The other way too much setting can get in your way is with the tone of your piece. If your protagonist just lost their spouse, if their kids don’t love them, if they’re dying of some horrible disease… but they live in a land of sun and palm trees and scantily clad beach kids, well… the reader’s going to think maybe everything isn’t so bad, after all.

There is one great solution to both of these problems. Own them. If, during your research you discover a secret love for isobars and thermoclines and rain shadows, for the sake of all that’s holy: go ahead and write a book about polar meteorology! It’s probably a niche book, but who knows? If you can make it compelling, go forth and prosper. If your setting is at odds with your tone–make a point of that! Use it. Use the crash of the sundappled waves to let your character meditate on deep time, on the size of life. Or make them even more miserable because everyone around them is so happy.

There’s a big secret here, one you should have learned in Creative Writing 101, but probably didn’t. Stories change as we write them. The stories we want to tell change. But you should always stay in control. Know what kind of story you want to write, know what it says. Know that you want it to say that. Be ready to change everything on a moment’s notice–but always make changes you want to make.

What’s most important in your story? The plot? The characters (99% of the time, it’s one of these two)? Then setting should exist only and entirely in service to your plot or your characters. There’s an easy rule for this. Ask yourself, before you start to write, whether your story could take place somewhere else. Whether it would work just as well in Kansas. Or the third planet of Altair. Or under the sea. If so, then your setting isn’t necessary. It’s just there for color and flavor. Those are important things, but they’re not super important, and so your setting can be chopped up, mutilated, or safely ignored as you choose.

Was your answer no? Can your story only take place in one particular setting? Would it seem impossible someplace else? Is this literally the only place in the universe this story could happen? Then suddenly setting is super important. Still–you want to work with it. Not in it. Never, ever let it become more important than the people who inhabit it.

Setting is seductive. It’s incredibly dangerous. Don’t let it take over your story–instead, make it work for you.

Writing: Little, Big

The emotional impact of a story is almost always inversely proportional to the size of the story.

It might seem counter-intuitive. Big books, with lots of characters, settings and set pieces engage the reader on a more intellectual level. Worldbuilding becomes predominant–the reader’s enjoyment of the story is more about being immersed in a place and a time. But this always comes at a remove: the reader is constantly reminded of the activity of reading, of the experience of hearing a story. The characters become functions and parts of that world, and the reader is distanced from them, less likely to identify directly with them, for better or worse.

A small story, though, that holds to the Aristotelian unities–one character, events that take place over one day in one setting–forces the reader out of this objective mindset. They have no choice but to relate and identify with the singular voice and viewpoint. Events become enlarged in significance and charge: we know that, since we are alone with the character, everything that happens to them is important, is meaningful in a way we feel more intensely. Our experience becomes more subjective, more immediate. More emotionally resonant.

There are, of course, ways to problematize the difference. Books like Game of Thrones work great at playing with the intersection of these two levels–while there is a huge world out there, with a story rich in incident, each character is given a deep interiority. As a result readers can choose which character they want to identify with the most–who they “root” for. It’s one of the things that makes the book so powerful.