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Writing

Short Story vs. Novel: How to Decide Which to Write

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

How can you tell whether the idea you’re working on is a short story or a novel? You might think the difference between these two art forms is one of length, but the major differences between how a short story works and a novel works has more to do with thematic and aesthetic considerations than word count alone.

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Novel Versus Short Story: Length

The length of a story is the most obvious difference between a short story and a novel. Length can help you determine which you are writing: Does your story need the room of a novel to be told properly, or is it able to be quickly wrapped up?

  • Word count. Broadly speaking, a short story is any work of narrative fiction from 1,000 to 10,000 words. Novels, by contrast, tend to be around 50,000 to 70,000 words, though of course there are plenty of examples of novels that are longer or shorter than those arbitrary guidelines. Generally speaking, though, a good short story is designed to be read in a single sitting or a day, while a novel is meant to occupy the reader for a longer period of time, like days, weeks, or even months.
  • Type of story. What really drives the length of the story? That depends on your idea. Generally speaking, a longer story requires a larger or more complex idea to sustain that length. The story of a trip to your grandmother’s for dinner may make a fine subject for a short story but unless you’re Marcel Proust, that may be hard to pull off in a novel.
  • Amount of time. In general, short stories tend to cover events of a shorter time period than novels. But that’s not always the case, Chekhov, for instance, wrote many stories that feel more like compact novels, covering years of time in just a few, tightly written pages.

Novel Versus Short Story: Complexity

While outlining your story, ask yourself: Does this story require extensive backstory to make sense to the reader? Does it revolve around a single event or a complex series of incidents? Are there many subplots or digressions necessary to convey the full sweep of the story? The more information you need to convey for the story to resonate, the longer a project you’re looking at.

  • Subplots. Another way to think about the difference between stories and novels has to do with the complexity of the story. A short story tends to take less time, following just a single thread, and rarely features more than a single subplot. A novel, by contrast, might burst with subplots.
  • Setting. Introducing your reader to a new setting can take a lot of time. If you’re writing in a historical time period, or building a new world as you might if you are writing science fiction, you’ll probably need to write more exposition than a story that is set in the present moment and in a familiar place.
  • Number of characters. Novels often have larger casts of highly developed characters. Short stories generally feature fewer characters or even just one main character.
  • Points of view. Consider how you want your story told: What is the point of view? It can be difficult as a writer (and confusing to a reader) to switch points of view over the course of a short story. In a longer your story, strategic shifts in point of view (even between first person and third person) may be important as a way to sustain the reader’s interest—spending too many pages with the same character or viewpoint can sometimes wear out a reader.
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What Kind of Writer Are You?

As a writer, you need to determine what sort of writing process your ideas most naturally lend themselves to. While novels are the books that tend to be the most widely read and celebrated, there are plenty of writers (Kafka, Chekhov, and Borges are good examples) who were short story writers almost exclusively. There are also plenty of examples of writers, like Hemingway, who wrote both stories and short stories. The only real question is which form is best suited to the kind of story you’re trying to tell.

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