It’s 3 AM and you’ve jolted awake with an idea for a story. You drag yourself out of bed and jot down the rough details of the plot and maybe a short sketch of a character or two before slithering back between the covers and allowing your body and brain to crash. When you awaken to the alarm a few hours later you have the vague remembrance of a visit by the creative muse. When you retrieve your notes, you’re surprised and can hardly wait to get to work and begin writing your next (or first) bestseller novel. Or should it be a short story?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you answer that question.
- How many characters will occupy my opus? Short stories tend to include one or, perhaps, two main characters. Secondary characters will be few or there may be none at all. Think of Tolstoy’s voluminous novel War and Peace with its cast of over 70 major characters. Compare that to O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi with only the husband and wife in starring roles.
- What period of time will I cover in my work? In general, a short story will focus on a very short, well-defined period of time whereas a novel can cover months, years or even generations. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is spread out over years preceding and surrounding the Civil War while Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story A Temporary Inconvenience unfolds in a period of less than a week.
- What about my story arc–are there any subplots? In the short story A Temporary Inconvenience a young married couple who has lost a baby is forced to communicate when their electricity is shut off for a few days. This will determine the outcome of their relationship. In my novel, Winter is Past, my protagonist Claire has to deal with the life-threatening illness of her best friend, a family secret and her mother’s plunge in to alcoholism only to mention a few of the story lines.
Keep in mind that you are not wed for life to one form or the other. It may happen that what begins as a short story with a simple plot will develop layers of complexity that evolve into a novel. This happens when characters are given free rein and suggest subplots or other characters to you as you write. Some authors have taken short stories as the skeleton on which to hang the flesh of a novel. On the other hand, it may happen that a failed chapter, scene or character from a work in progress will suggest a short story. That’s exactly what happened to me with one of the first drafts of my novel. In choosing novel over short story or vice versa, you have a sense of how to begin. But once the wheels are in motion, don’t be afraid to let your muse guide you where she will.