| Don’t Write Alone
Notes on Craft Is Your Idea Better Suited to a Novel or a Short Story?
You’ll start to note the difference between your longer- and shorter-form ideas—but if you’re not sure, there are some questions you can ask.
A question I’m often asked by students or other early-career writers is “How do I know whether a given idea should become a novel or a story?”
It’s a fair question, because I write both novels and short stories, so I understand the desire for a clear rubric of what each form should accomplish and how to discern the shape a new project might take. Many writers begin by experimenting with stories (some MFA programs all but demand this, since they’re easier to workshop) and want to know when they’ve crossed the invisible line of readiness for a longer form.
The truth is, though, that the forms are distinct—a story is not a practice novel—and it’s the writer as much as the idea that’s suited to one or the other. For example, when I attended one novelist’s reading in graduate school, she admitted that she didn’t understand why anyone would “waste” a good idea on a piece of short fiction instead of a novel. At the time, I found this confession shocking, probably because I was one of those MFA students diligently workshopping my stories. But in retrospect, I suspect she meant that the ideas that appealed most to her had a particular shape—flexible, sprawling—that worked better as novels. After all, there are short story writers who feel the exact opposite way. And then there are writers like me, strange hybrids with one foot in either world.
My first novel, The Daughters , actually began as a story, which workshop readers found promising but disproportionate. As I say, it was a question of shape. The story made stabs at doing what the novel would later accomplish more elegantly: following three generations of women as they struggle with issues of artistic ambition, inherited trauma, war, and motherhood. I wanted to visit multiple eras in-scene, explore the way each generation’s relationship to their circumstances influenced the next and the next. But to do so in short fiction (operative word: short ) necessarily meant skipping around too fast, losing out on texture and incident, doing too much by implication—there simply wasn’t enough space. I could have forced it anyway, but the final product wouldn’t have matched my inspiration. The story let me peek through a window, when what I wanted was to walk inside the house and look around.
Still, at the time I was scared to attempt a project as long as a novel, as many people are when they’ve cut their teeth on shorter work. I worried the sensation would be akin to stretching something beyond its natural contours, forcing a sweater over another sweater, painful and slightly ruinous. I worried I wouldn’t be able to sustain my interest in the idea over hundreds of pages, or that I’d get lost in my own plot. Yet when I sat down one evening with a glass of wine and the intent to begin, I felt instantly free as endless space opened before me, inviting me to fill it however I wished.
The short story let me peek through a window, when what I wanted was to walk inside the house and look around.
As I’ve learned over the course of three books, a novel is expansive territory, with room to breathe and room to fuck up. Individual scenes can become formal experiments—a scene that is structured like a palindrome; a scene that is all dialogue; a scene that’s a text chat—without hewing the entire book to that shape or system. Each piece retains the structural support of the novel’s longer narrative arc, maintaining a balance between propulsion and exploration, mood and motion. And if something doesn’t work, you can throw it away, or replace it, without throwing away the whole book.
I said before that a novel, compared to a story, is like a house compared to a window. But a house is really not big enough to encompass what I mean. Having an idea for a new novel is more like finding a door in your apartment and discovering a whole new world behind it. Like climbing inside a wardrobe and stumbling into Narnia, where you are met with a never-ending wealth of detail, incident, possibility.
And yet: Isn’t a window sometimes better?
Having gushed about novels like a teen with a crush, I must say that I also have literary moods that only short fiction can satisfy. I tend to know that an idea is better suited to a story when I want to sustain a sense of mystery for the entire piece. A story can, of course, move through many different modes, but one particular strength of short fiction is to spook, to enthrall by withholding.
The more-compressed length of a story means the reader can always feel the edges of the tale they’re being told, and those edges press against their understanding of the text. As a result, they will more willingly—indeed, sometimes hungrily—fill in the details that you leave out. Looking through a window can sustain a greater sense of possibility than walking through the house, because you learn different things when you know what you’re seeing is just part of a whole. A novel may seek to answer a question, but a story grants immanence to the question itself.
So then, how do you decide, given the particular pleasures of each form—a story’s compression and a novel’s depth of field—and the fact that there exists no one correct way to write either one? Some novels, after all, are poetic and mysterious, and some shorter works are incredibly clear-eyed. The answer, too, is personal: your style and intent.
With enough experience, you’ll start to feel the difference between your own longer- and shorter-form ideas, but if you’re not yet sure, there are some questions you can ask yourself—system checks, of a kind, for your prospective projects. These aren’t cut-and-dried, because art never is, but they can help you start to weigh the properties of your idea; they can help you figure out which parts of it are most interesting to you and how you can convey those elements on the page.
Before you start, sit with the idea for a while. Go on a walk, or lie on the floor, or putter in your garden—whatever helps you think. (Or maybe I should say, stop thinking.) Take a few notes, leave them on your desk for a while, and when you come back to them, see what’s most striking to you. Is it an image? (If so, does that image feel like a starting place or a resting point?) Is it a person? (And if it is, do you want to spend a lot of time with that person, or would you prefer to dip in on a single moment of their time?) Is it a mood, or a sound, or a rhythm of prose? (And if it is, must it stand alone, or would it benefit from other moods, other rhythms, a symphony behind it?)
Ask yourself about the idea in terms that don’t usually apply to fiction. Is your idea an umbrella that can fit a lot beneath it, or is it just a dot of color in the distance, smeared by rain? Is your idea like a staircase found in the woods, or is it like the woods, entire? Is it the muffled sound of a conversation taking place behind a door at night, or is it what happens the next morning, because of that conversation?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you must decide for yourself, of course, what they imply. You’ll have to be brave and willing to make mistakes and start over—this will be important no matter which form you choose. Try to be honest with yourself about what you want out of your idea. I’ve started entire novels on the strength of a phrase I couldn’t get out of my head, and I’ve written stories that felt enormous, engulfing, visible in every direction I looked. Which is to say, sometimes small things feel big, and vice versa. At the moment of beginning, only you can tell the difference.