Short Stories for Novel Writers, and Vice Versa

If you are a short story writer, then it is likely that you struggle with writing novels; if you are a novel writer, then it is likely that you struggle with writing short stories.

And yet people do write short stories, and they do write novels, so it must not be impossible.  Just…difficult to translate.


A short story has four basic pieces.

  • Setup (a character in a setting with a problem).
  • The character tries to do something.
  • The attempt either succeeds or fails.
  • Wrapup (where the characters end up, whether the setting changes, and how the problem is resolved).

I’m going to guesstimate and say that a setup takes about 400 words, a wrapup about the same or less, and each try takes 400 words.

You can have several tries, but each will require 400ish words, with an extra 200 words of transition or setup, and another 200 words or so if you change settings.  I highly recommend that multiple tries in the same story be aimed at the exact same goal.  As the character fails at one tactic, they shift to another, but it’s still the same goal.

Some notes:

  • For flash fiction, generally, the charactor and/or setting are implied, and the problem gets the biggest description.
  • If you’re reading a short story and can’t spot the setup or wrapup, it’s because it happens elsewhere in the story, shh, almost like a secret.  Mostly don’t do this, but if your heart guides you there, it can be done.  Generally the story has to be pretty short to get away with this.
  • Don’t try to cut words on the setup.  Just write at your normal novelist pace.  You won’t have too much to set up, so it probably won’t end up as long anyhow.
  • I would stick to like 3 tries to do something.  Otherwise you’re going to start going, “Time for a plot twist!” and turn it into a novel.
  • To a novelist, a novelette is a laboriously long short story, like “The Metamorphosis” or “The Old Man and the Sea.”  The novelette is mostly about one main thing, and you don’t really need a novel’s plot points.


A novel is a fractal short story.

  • The novel as a whole has a setup, a big push to do something (the main point of the story), and a wrapup, just like a short story.
  • However, every element has fractal setups, fractal tries in which the character attempts to do something, and fractal wrapups.
  • The difference is that you can’t resolve anything until the climax, or the overall main push of the story.
  • Thus, every attempt by the protagonist to do something must fail until they hit the climax.

The difference between a series of interconnected short stories and a novel is that the interconnected short stories have mini resolutions at the end of each short story.  A novel has zero resolutions until you hit the climax.  The wrapup resolves everything not already covered in the climax.

Some notes:

  • If it looks like something is going well in a novel, there must be something truly awful happening right afterward.  Two characters reconcile?  Soon, one of them will be dead.
  • A chapter as a whole has a one main “try.”  Each scene has its own “try.”  Inside each scene, there are a number of different “tries.”  Every time a character tries a new tactic, it’s a new “try.”
  • Each try will have a setup, a try, a failure of some kind, and a wrapup.  The setup and wrapup might be implied, or super short.
  • Transitional material between tries doesn’t itself have to be a try.  It’s more of an extended setup.  No worries.
  • Generally, the entire novel is split into like four main tries.  Low level tries (first 25%), well that was interesting tries (second 25%), HOLY SHIT THINGS GOT SERIOUS tries (third 25%), and We Are Putting This to Bed (last 25%).
  • There is usually some Big Stinking Deal at the 50% mark that makes everything 10 times more serious.
  • The last section is weird, and usually ends up with 75-85% being getting ready for the climax, 85-95% being the climax, and the last 5% being the wrapup.
  • These percentage things are weirdly consistent; I’ve been checking on my Kindle.
  • A novella is a short novel, like Heart of Darkness or The Turn of the Screw, where a lot of stuff is going on on a fractal level, but you’re in and out, BOOM, no subplots.
  • Subplots often have either exactly the same plot as the main plot, or exactly reversed.  Subplots tend to look like minor short stories “stitched” into the main plot in a dotted line, where most of that plot is hidden by the fabric but pops up occasionally to show off the thread.


Oh GOD.  You literally do have to tell readers everything in a short story and in a novel.  You have to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then remind them about what you just told them.  Literally 80% of what you write is explaining, and re-explaining, what the fuck is going on.  This is no different in a mystery.  You hide nothing.  It’s appalling how little fiction readers actually notice what’s going on, but it pays better.  The more you explain, as long as you explain in character, the more readers will like it.

Also, fiction writers tend to screw up the details and dialogue.  They get wrapped up in plot and forget about making it feel, and sound, real.  Put in good sense details and dialogue, and the readers will be all over it, even if you can’t plot for shit.

The world is madness which can only be combatted with sly nonsense.  Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!

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