Writing Question: Short story or novel?

It often takes writers several years of serious writing before they get a sense of the relationship between their initial ideas and the final products. Which idea is appropriate for a flash fiction story? Which idea requires a longer story? Which idea should become a novel? Even after years, some writers struggle, taking an idea more appropriate for a short story and writing an entire novel about it, making the reader feel he’s put in a lot of time for a small payoff; or trying to cram a novel idea into a short story and leaving the reader confused and unsatisfied. When you have an idea, what type of piece should it become? Odyssey graduate Carrie Vaughn discussed this topic when she came to the workshop as our writer-in-residence in 2009, and you can find an excerpt from that lecture in Podcast #35. But since this is one of the most difficult and most important skills for a writer to develop, we thought we’d ask other Odyssey graduates to weigh in on the issue.

When you get an idea, how do you know if it’s a short story idea or a novel idea?

Erica Hildebrand, Class of 2007

Sometimes you just know, sometimes you don’t.

I guess the trick is to try to have that figured out ahead of time. When I don’t, I worry about the format only after the plot scaffolding is in place.  The clues are in the stakes and the casting. How high do the stakes get, and how many characters is it going to take to achieve them?

The bigger a work of fiction, the bigger a goal it should have (even just a plot backdrop to the protagonist’s personal goal) to fill out the pages and up the stakes. The metaphor I use is: in a short story you fire a bullet; in a novel you set off a bomb.

As for casting, I try to use the minimum. One thing I’ve learned in the past few years (through practice and the guidance of others) is that I can downsize and consolidate characters. If you have Supporting Character A and Supporting Character B, why not crop out B altogether and give all of his lines and actions to A, which pares it down and also rounds Character A out? Conversely, you can bulk up your cast when your story grows to the size of a novel.

Of course, these are just suggestions, and also completely ignorable if they don’t suit your story.

But I still think it boils down to the fact that sometimes you just know, sometimes you don’t.


Sherry Peters, Class of 2005

I tend to have only one idea at a time to work on, and they tend to be novels. Actually, I assume any idea I have is a novel, simply because I rarely write short stories. If I want to write a short story, I have to purposely come up with an idea and then trim it, a lot, for it to fit into a short story word limit. Even then, they would probably serve better if I expanded the whole thing into at least a novelette.


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