Sunday, February 26, 2012


by Earl Staggs

A lot of writers I know write short stories as well as novels. I also know a lot of writers who only write novels. They say they simply cannot contain a story idea in a short word length. I write both short and long and feel any writer can do the same.

I’ve given presentations on this subject and usually begin with this question:

What’s the difference between writing a short story and a novel?

The answer is: One’s bigger than the other.

While that may sound like a smartass remark, it isn’t. A novel is bigger insofar as the amount of story being told, not just in number of words and pages.

We’ll come back to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the requirements for writing a good short story.

To write a good short story, you have to use words sparingly. You don’t short change the story, of course. You still need to use every word necessary to tell the story as well as it can be told. You do, however, need to avoid unnecessary and extraneous words. You search out and use strong nouns and verbs and excise modifying adverbs and adjectives wherever possible. You avoid lapses into long descriptions and narrative readers only skip over anyway. You also avoid secondary characters and subplots which are not essential. When you finish the story, you want to feel certain every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph is as sharp and concise as it can be and moves the story steadily forward to a satisfying conclusion.

Wait a minute. That’s good advice for writing a novel, too, isn’t it? Of course it is. Then if the requirements are the same for writing short and long, what is the difference? As stated above, one is bigger than the other. It’s a matter of focus.

There are three basic elements of a story, whether it’s long or short: character, plot and setting. In a novel, the focus on them is in that order. When readers open a book, they look forward to getting to know the primary characters, who they are, how they became who they are, and what baggage they may carry from who they used to be. Once readers know and feel something for the primary characters, whether there are one, two, three or more of them, they’re ready to move into the plot with them and work toward whatever goal the characters must reach. Along the way, they experience the settings along with the characters and feel they’re visiting the places where the story unfolds. In addition to the main story line or plot, there will be subplots involving the characters which move forward alongside the primary plot.

The focus is different in a short story. The same three basic elements are there, but in a different order of priority. In a short story, the emphasis is on plot first, then character and setting. In a short mystery story, a crime has been committed and the primary focus of the story is in solving the crime. Characters are needed, of course, but only one of them will be a primary character, and that’s usually the one who must solve the crime. While other characters are involved in the story, readers will only get to know the main character in any depth. There may be a minor subplot involving the main character, but for the most part, the emphasis and forward movement is focused on the main plot, which is solving the crime. Settings are necessary, too, but are not described in as much detail as you would in a novel.

As an example, a character in your story may have to drive along a busy downtown street during rush hour. In a novel, you might describe the sights, sounds and smells. In a short story, you probably wouldn’t. You take it for granted the reader has been there and experienced it.

I’ve generalized here, of course. There are always exceptions. I’ve read short stories in which the characters are so compelling you hardly notice the plot. I’ve read novels in which the plot is so intense and suspenseful, the characters are only a blur.

Even with exceptions, it’s still true that a novel deals with a larger and more comprehensive story with more character depth and range than you’ll find in a short story. In a short story, the focus is on a more linear path to the conclusion.

With that in mind, I feel safe in saying the techniques and skills necessary to write a good short story are the same as for writing a good novel, and any writer should be able to do both.

All you have to remember is this: One’s bigger than the other.


term papers said...

I really enjoyed this article.

Randy Rawls said...

Well said, Earl. I know you prefer writing shortstories (you'd better, you've written a gajillion), while I prefer writing long stories. For me, one of the beauties of writing the shortstory is the discipline required. I may get a bit lazy as I use up 80,000-plus words to tell a story, but faced with a 4,000 word limit, I have to raise up on my toes and sit on the edge of my seat to get it done.
Good article, well stated.

Morgan Mandel said...

Short stories are kind of like Twitter. You learn how to condense what you're saying to still get your message across.

Morgan Mandel

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Someday I am going to bring a chapter from James Lee Burke and give it to you, Earl, just to see how much gets stripped out. I suspect more than 90 percent would be cut.