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The Major Differences Between Writing a Short Story and Writing a Novel (Besides Length)

Short Story Versus a Novel
Perhaps the short story could be called an art form. While almost anyone with an idea can sit down and pen a novel of decent quality, the short story requires an ability and talent on the part of the author that novels do not. Don't get me wrong. It doesn't have to be difficult to tell a complete story in 2000 words, but it's a lot easier to tell it when you have 70,000 plus words to play with.

That said, maybe the reason we don't see many short story collections lining the bookstore shelves today is because not many writers can write a short story as well as a novel. We give great respect to novelists. They fill the bestseller lists; they win Nobel prizes. All the while, the short story writer and the tales they create go unnoticed for the most part.

But why is that? Is it because short stories aren't as interesting as novels? Is it because they're a lesser quality piece of literature? Or is it because a good short story is truly an art form that most writers haven't learned to master?

Even though a short story and a novel have many similarities, such as characters, dialogue, plot, etc., there are aspects that a short story must have that a novel can live without. You can take liberties in writing a novel. Dare we say, you can be lazier and take your time building suspense, revealing information about the characters, and so on. The short story writer doesn't have these liberties.

That being said, most amateur short story writers try to write their stories like miniature novels. Their stories read as either an excerpt or a condensed novel. They do not write short stories that are actual complete stories. They do not know what sets the short story apart from the novel, and why one can never be substituted for the other.

More than that, you're going to learn the aspects of every good short story and how to create your own. While you may be in a hurry to jump in and start learning to write better short stories, truly knowing what a short story is and how it sets itself apart from the novel is one of the keys to improving your skills.

The Differences between a Short Story and a Novel


We've already discussed the length of the work as being one of the main differences between a short story and a novel. However, that is not the only difference between the two. A novel is not simply a series of short stories strung together. It must have a cumulative effect to the reader and a series of climaxes that all point to the final climax in the book. The novel must lead a reader down a path, taking them on ups and downs along the way. Each scene is inevitably tied to the one that follows. Every climax is written to prepare the reader for what happens next. It builds tension, curiosity, interest, and anticipation. While the novel may contain several twists and turns in the plot, every bit of it is written to get us to that final climax where everything we've read comes together and the story ends.

A short story, on the other hand, has a tight plot that leads to only one climax the majority of the time. Until you have abundant experience writing short stories and your stories are widely published and revered, you shouldn't try anything more. Every word and every sentence the author writes leads to that point. If you did this in a novel – created one climax only – your reader would get bored. Who wants to read through 100 or more pages before they get to the climax – or an exciting part or scene of the book? Nobody! But in a short story, you don't have the 100 pages to entertain the reader with multiple climaxes. To keep the story clear, interesting, and on track you must stick to one climax only.


A novel can read like a movie. Each section or chapter can take place in a different setting. The story may move from the downtown streets to a country farmhouse, then to a suburban neighborhood. These settings may be critical to the story or they just may be the settings for different scenes. Again, this is where a short story differs. Short stories only employ one setting, for the most part. Of course, there are always exceptions in literature because it is an art form. But the rule for high quality short stories is to include only one setting. Read any number of short stories, and you'll see this is true.

The reason for this is because short stories cover a very brief period of time. Your story may take place in one day whereas novels can cover months or years. Naturally, the reason for this is the word count, length of your piece, and the need for you to tell an interesting, well fleshed out tale. If you're jumping time periods, even if it's a week or two down the road, chances are your story will be choppy. Your reader may even think it's not told completely. Short stories simply are not long enough to employ the tricks, liberties, and style that novels possess. We can't emphasize enough that short stories are different from novels. You can be a novelist and write short stories. But you cannot write as a novelist when you create them. You have to be a short story writer.


A modern short story is usually no shorter than 1000 words but no longer than 20,000 words. There have been short stories written in just a few paragraphs. In many instances, however, the longer short stories, or the ones that range from 10,000 to 20,000 words, are referred to as novellas – or miniature novels. When writing a short story, you should never worry about the length. Write to tell the story and not a word more.
Want to learn more? Take an online course in How to Write a Short Story.

A Novel:

  • Can have plot twists or changes or shifts in direction that alter the expected outcome
  • Has several climaxes
  • Is longer in length
  • Can have side trips to intrigue the reader

A Short Story:

  • Has a tight plot
  • Has one climax
  • Is no longer than 20k words
  • Since it is shorter, the story is told right away
  • Limited number of characters
  • A single setting
  • Covers a short period of time

Examining the Elements of the Short Story As Compared to the Novel

Now that we understand the differences between a novel and a short story, let's examine the elements of the short story as compared to the novel and why each one is important to creating a well-written, higher quality tale.

In the section above, we defined the plot in a short story to be tight. What is meant by that is this: in a short story, the plot moves forward from the very first word to the very last. It does not take detours or side trips. You cannot "switch up" the plot or give it twists when writing a short story because you do not have the word count (or length) to make that happen. It's comparable to trying to sprint when you have to make a 90 degree turn every 3 feet. You don't have the space to do it.

A lot of amateur writers make the mistake of thinking that they can break the rules and get away with it. They believe that they can write the story that everyone else says can't be written – and write it well. Yes, that means there are writers out there right now – who are thinking to themselves that they can put plot twists into a short story and still have a high quality story. However, all they do is mark themselves as amateurs, and they never advance into great short story writing.

If you dare to put plot twists into your short story, one or all of these things will happen:

  • You will have an underdeveloped plot. The plot of your story develops from beginning to end. If you have a ten page story, build the plot up until page five, then shift it because you're going to change the "obvious" outcome, then you have to propel the plot forward from the shift. You've taken a new direction, and now you have more story to tell with that new direction. The only thing is, you don't have the space in a short story. So, instead, your plot is underdeveloped because you never took the time to develop it completely before changing gears.

  • Your story will be dull and boring. If you shift gears right as the reader becomes interested, then you are more than likely going to lose their attention.

  • Your story confuses the reader. They finish reading your short story and ask themselves "what the heck just happened?"

  • You end up mistaking a plot twist for a climax and all of the above things happen with your story. A plot twist is a change or shift in the direction of the book that alters the outcome. A climax is a moment of intensity IN the plot that brings everything to a head and leads to the conclusion.

This brings us to the climax of a short story. It may be tempting to any writer to include what we'll call mini-climaxes in the story. As you write, you're excited. You're "into" the story as it plays out inside your head and falls onto the paper. Naturally, you want your reader to be just as excited and to keep them excited along the way. However, writer be warned!

Remember what a climax is: a moment of intensity in the plot that brings everything to a head and leads to the conclusion. The reason you can have several climaxes in a novel is because you can create conflict, then present the resolution within the several hundred pages to keep the reader interested. Within the confines of a short story, you don't have the length or time it will require to create multiple climaxes (conflict, resolution) and create the main climax of the story.

In a novel, you have:

  • Introduction of setting, situation, and main characters or the exposition
  • Introduction of the conflict or complication
  • Rising action or crisis
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • Moral

Because of the length of short stories, most short stories just have an exposition, climax, and an abrupt ending. Short stories are known for having a "moral of the story" or a practical lesson, although this is not expected or required. Several even start out in the middle of the action. Short story writing is an art form; however, the final choice on how to write it is up to you. We can only discuss the qualities that make most short stories the great tales that they are.

Writing a Catchy First Paragraph

Anything that you will ever write takes preparation. It doesn't matter if it's a story, letter, or poem. Writing a well thought out short story is no different.

Think of it this way. If we were learning to bake a cake, you would have already learned the common ingredients, how to preheat the oven, and the necessary elements that go into baking anything whether it's cake, cookies, or chicken. Now we're going to learn the ingredients that go into your cake, so to speak, so that you know everything you need to know to make not only an edible, but also a delicious cake.

The first ingredient to any short story is the very first paragraph you write. .

The first paragraph of your story is arguably the most important one you'll write because it determines whether or not your reader will keep reading or put your story down. It will also set you up to either write an incredible short story or cause you to drop the proverbial ball from the very beginning.

Your first paragraph should accomplish the following things. It should:

  • Catch your reader's attention
  • Introduce the unusual, unknown, unexpected, or a conflict
  • Create immediacy and tension
  • Start as close to the conclusion as possible

Read the following sentence:

Incorrect: I saw my neighbor through the window.

That sentence is dry and boring, isn't it?

But why is it dry and boring?

It's simple. It does nothing to provoke the reader's imagination. It does not grab them by their shirt and pull them into the story. The sentence above does nothing but to tell the reader what's happening. Listen. If you want your readers to be interested in what you write, you have to show them what's happening.

Look at the following version of the same sentence:

Correct: The neighbor across the street practiced the hot coal jig in his bath towel every day.

This sentence is more interesting. It grabs the reader's attention. It makes the readers ask what the hot coal jig is, why he is doing it, and why he's in his bath towel in front of the window when he does it. What does he look like when he does it? By the sound of it, it almost seems comical.

Now look at this paragraph using the sentence above:

Correct: The neighbor across the street practiced the hot coal jig in his bath towel every day. The first time I saw him, I watched him flail and twitch for five minutes, debating whether or not to inform him of his embarrassment by asking him to shut his curtains. It was very different than living next door to an elderly widow like Mrs. Smith who only planted rose bushes outside her bedroom window.

This paragraph introduces "I" into the story. It also presents a conflict, which will demand a course of action, and gives the context of the past and present setting (instead of writing about both settings). This paragraph brings the reader into the action. It shows them what is happening. After reading this paragraph, the reader is more likely to be hooked than they would if they would have read:

Incorrect: I saw my neighbor through the window. He was dancing in his bath towel. It was something he did every morning since I moved in. I had never seen anything like it! For a minute, I debated whether I should go next door or not and ask him to close his curtains.

That is just a horrible paragraph, although it is well written in form and structure. It tells the reader what's going on. There isn't any action; there isn't any conflict that will require action. It is boring and drab. If the reader doesn't fall asleep first, they will put the story down.

Remember. The first paragraph must:

  • Show the reader what is going on, not tell them.
  • Create a vivid image of the setting for the reader.
  • Bring the reader into the story.
  • Grab the reader's attention.
  • Create action, conflict, and tension to set up the rest of the plot and story.
  • Make the reader ask "who, what, when, where, or why?" If the reader doesn't have questions after reading your first paragraph, they won't read the story.

If you read this section and think that writing the first paragraph is going to be a challenge or difficult, then practice. Look out the window and write a few sentences about what you see. Then read those sentences and rewrite them to show someone else what's outside your window. Talk about a neighbor who is outside or a bird that's on a tree. Your view outside of your window might seem dull, but you can write it in a way that will make someone else want to know more.

Start observing the world around you and write paragraphs about what you see. You'll be surprised how much easier it will be to write that first paragraph when you sit down to create a story.

Always ask yourself:

  • Am I showing what I see or what's in my mind?
  • Am I making the reader want to know more?
  • Am I creating enough interest or tension to make them want to know more?
  • Am I presenting conflict, action, or setting to make them want to read more?
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