Saturday, 11 May 2013

Novel v. short story – is there a difference?

The answer is yes, there are some very clear differences between short stories and novels.  There are also clear advantages to writing and working with these different story types.
Some writers love writing short stories, while others balk at the idea.  Other writers only write novels or novellas, and wouldn’t even entertain the thought of writing short stories.
But why can some people only write one specific type, where others have easily diversified and can write anything from flash fiction, poetry, short stories, longer stories and novels?
The answer probably lies in a writer’s own misconceptions and fears:  “I can’t write short stories – I don’t know how to…” or “I just can’t seem to write short stories, they never seem to work…”  There are other excuses, such as, “I can only write novels – short stories are too limiting…” or “Only serious writers write novels…”
If a writer can write a 1000 word story, they can also write an 80,000 word novel – they just don’t realise that they can.
The same is true for those who write novels. If they can write an 80,000 – 100,000 word story, then there is no reason why they can’t easily write a short story or a flash fiction.
Sometimes it’s down to a writer not even trying to broaden their writing skills.  There’s nothing wrong with that; but for the writer, it might be advantageous by not limiting oneself to a certain type of story writing. There is a lot a writer can learn from experimenting with and writing with many story types.
Of course, there might be genuine reasons why a writer can’t write one or the other – it might be that they are simply not very good at writing short stories, but are great at writing novels, and vice versa.  Everyone is different, and not everyone can do it, but writers should at least give it a go. 
Advantages of short stories and flash fiction pieces: 
·        They help hone key writing skills – short stories are great for cutting one’s writing teeth.  Sometimes writers start off small and work their way up to the larger stuff.  New writers should start with short story writing to help them perfect their craft.

·        Shorter stories help with editing by forcing the writer to be judicious with word usage.  It makes them think carefully about sentence structures and the right words to convey the right meaning, without wasting words.  A writer has to learn how to tell a story in 1000 words rather than 90,000.

·        They help a writer focus their concentration on characterisation – short stories usually have a limited amount of characters to work with, perhaps one or two, therefore characterisation is (for the most part) more concentrated.

·        Flash fiction stories are even more concentrated – every word counts; the story should still be there, despite it being told in so few words.

·        Short stories also focus the attention on the strength of the story – again limited wordage means the writer must have a watertight plot and flawless story.

·        Short stories tend to be constructed around a single climactic event, rather than several that might take place in a novel.  This makes it easier to deal with the drama and emotion for beginners – they’re concentrating on one event rather than several.

·        Short stories tend to take place over a few hours or days, thus making it easier for the writer to focus on, as opposed to the large time modes that take place in a novel.
As with short stories, there are also advantages to writing longer fiction (stories over 10,000 words), novellas and novels:
·        They help a writer understand the planning and development of the writing process because each of your 30 or so chapters should be sketched out, complete with the logistics of how the story will grow and develop.

·        Novels are perfect for thorough characterisation – longer stories make it easier to explore a character’s background and back-story, thus making them more lifelike and plausible. They also have many characters to work with, as opposed to the one or two in short stories.

·        They help writers understand plot & subplot development, something that can’t be explored too much with shorter stories.  Novels usually contain several subplots

·        Unlike short stories, novels contain many rising complications for characters, followed by resolutions, in order to maximise tension towards the climax.

·        Novels take the main character (and reader) on a journey – the character is somehow changed by the end.

·        The scope of a novel means you can cram more of your narrative into your story – you have an average of 80,000 words to play with instead of, say, 5000 words.  Writing novels means you can not only explore a story idea, but you can create more characters to inhabit the story.

There are undoubtedly many differences in the construction of novels and short stories, and different advantages, but the basics of fiction writing remain the same.  Writers shouldn’t be afraid to give these different types a go to expand their skills and experience. 
Each type has its own skill set, each one teaches the writer something different, but each one is very useful writing tool. First attempts won’t be brilliant – but practise really does make perfect, so if you haven’t tried to write a short story, then give it a go.
And if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, but have limited yourself to short stories, then what’s stopping you?

Next week:  There are two sides to every story.

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