What Short Story Writers Can Learn from Novelists, And Vice Versa

by Susan Breen

Not long ago I was in a miserable state, waiting for my editor to get back to me with her suggestions for revising my novel. The contract was signed, the advance was spent; I doubted she was going to tell me to throw the pages away and start over. But this is publishing. You never know. After I’d watched a week’s worth of Law and Order, I thought perhaps I should do something constructive and so I decided to write a short story. There’d been an idea nagging at me for a while, about a mother who takes her son to audition for the part of Tiny Tim. Trouble ensues.

I’ve written a lot of short stories, and had many of them published, but I had not actually sat down to write one in almost seven years, not since I began work on my novel. So I was dumbfounded, when I began to sketch out this story, “The Tiny Tim,” to find that my approach had completely changed. Writing a novel had taught me important things about the short story, just as writing short stories had influenced my approach to the novel. In fact, I’d accidentally discovered four important things that short story writers can learn from novelists. And vice versa.

Dig deeper into character.
The temptation for short story writers is to focus on one key element of a character’s personality. For example, in “The Tiny Tim,” the most significant thing to know about the mother, Trisha, is her intense pride in her son. Maternal pride is a rich emotion and gave me a lot to write about. But, because I’d grown used to having to flesh out a character over 300 pages, I began to ask myself additional questions about Trisha and one thing I was surprised to find out was that she was a writer for a foreign policy magazine and had strong feelings about immigration. This would not seem to have anything to do with a story about auditions, and yet I came up with a paragraph in which Trisha compares the waiting room to Ellis Island, which leads her to think about her grandfather, who came from Russia. It’s a small moment and the story would be fine without it, and yet, because that paragraph is there, I believe the story is better. Because I roamed further than I might have, I came up with a detail that gave my character, and my story, more depth. Don’t just ask your characters questions to which you know the answers. Surprise yourself.

Think big!
Novelists tend to write about big topics—War and Peace, for example. Pride and Prejudice. This may have to do with the nature of novelists, or it may be that it’s easier to write long if you have something to say. By contrast, short story writers tend to write about small moments. (Not all of them, of course. Every one of Alice Munro’s stories is a novel in disguise.) But typically short stories are about discrete moments in time—an afternoon at the mall, a dinner with your husband, a child taking a piano lesson. The problem is that if you keep your focus too small, your impact may be small too. Why not try to think big? For example, Raymond Carver’s classic story, “Cathedral,” is about a blind man who pays a visit to an unhappy man and his wife. In lesser hands, this could have been a pedestrian story about three people who don’t really get along. But Carver has something bigger on his mind—Salvation, with a capital S. He explores the relationships between his characters, but he also forces us to think about what it all means. What does your story mean? What is the capital word that goes with it? Love? Death? Loss?

Write mini-chapters
Novelists know that every chapter should have its own narrative arc—an inciting incident, tension, a climax. Ideally, each chapter is there to push the novel forward. Same thing with scenes in a short story. If each one is a min-chapter, with its own mini-narrative arc, your short story will be propelled forward. Nathan Englander’s short story, “How We Avenged the Blums,” is a literary story so beautiful that it was published in The Best American Short Stories 2006, but is also a page turner. There are seventeen scenes in that story, but each scene, even the ones that are only two paragraphs long, is rich enough that you could imagine it as a chapter in a novel. Look at the scenes in your own story. How rich are they? Can you picture them as chapters?

Be patient
Few people expect to finish a novel in a month and so, if a novelist hits a hard patch at page 142, as they often do, she is mentally prepared to fight it out. But many short story writers hope to finish up quickly, get the story out, and publish. This can lead to laziness, or slovenliness. You have to take the same amount of care with a short story as with novels. Go through revisions. If it takes a year, it takes a year. You are creating something beautiful here and it’s worth the wait.

Now, let’s switch sides and think about what novelists can learn from short story writers.

Don’t waste words.
Short story writers know that every word counts. The typical story does not run past 5,000 words and so you have to be thrifty; choose your words wisely. By contrast, a novel, with its hundreds of pages, seems much more forgiving of digression. Why not include that scene in which your five characters discuss their favorite movies? But this is a mistake. The best novels are focused, not blowsy. Look at even a long novel, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Look at every scene. (All right, that could take a long time, so look at the first 50 pages.) You’ll see that every scene is there for a reason, whether to illustrate character or move the plot forward. That book is more than 500 pages long, but nothing is wasted. When you go through your novel, you should look at every scene and ask yourself: Why is it there?

Take risks
There is more experimental short fiction out there than long fiction, and one reason is probably that it is less risky to start an experimental story. If you write and it doesn’t work, you can set it aside without feeling the same sense of failure that you might if you’d started a novel and it didn’t work. Yes, it’s discouraging to throw out 300 pages. (Been there, done that.) But if you don’t push yourself to take risks, you are likely to wind up with the same exact novel as everyone else. Just because you picked up a thriller at the airport and it looked like something anyone could write, doesn’t mean that if you write it, it’s going to be published. Challenge yourself. Try doing something new. Make a list of “What if?” questions. Push yourself to go beyond the obvious.

Respect the reader
This comes courtesy of short story writer Jenny Swift, who points out that so much of short stories is about nuance. Because you don’t have the time and space to explain everything, you have to suggest more to the reader and let them think for themselves and that teaches short story writers that the reader is smart. Novelists seem to have a less elevated view of their readership and feel compelled to tell the reader everything, especially in the first fifty pages. If your main character owns a ski resort and is trying to solve a murder there, I do not need to know on the second page that the resort was built in 1926 by the same man who built the Erie Canal and that its is a great work of engineering. And so on. I’d much rather know about the detective work; I want to be pulled into the story. Show me an exciting scene and I’ll figure out the rest.

Pay attention to timing
Novels typically take place over long periods of time. Each of the Harry Potter books takes place over the course of a year. One of the most difficult things a novelist does is figure out how to take charge of that time. How do you move people from day to day, decade to decade? Short story writers tend to worry less about time because they are dealing in smaller increments of it; many short stories take place on an afternoon or a weekend or Christmas Eve. Still, by manipulating time well, you can add tension and depth to your story. Let’s go back to Carver’s “Cathedral,” which is set on one long afternoon and evening. Try counting up all the drinks the characters consume; every time the narrator pours the blind man a new Scotch, the reader is conscious of the fact that more time has passed. The flow of time adds to the tension, because the reader knows that as night begins to fall, matters will come to a head. It’s like being on a river and knowing there are rapids in front of you. Something has to happen. Being conscious of time will add another dimension to your story.

What happens when you put all these lessons together? In my own case, my short story “The Tiny Tim” came along beautifully, and I was so happy with it that I decided I really liked these people and wanted to spend more time with them. So now it’s the first chapter of my new novel. You never know.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.