How the Process of Writing a Short Story Differs from Writing a Novel

When writing longer works, it’s completely reasonable to tease the reader, because you will have the chance to reveal more later on. You don’t get that chance when you only have so much space and time to lay out and then wrap up a story.



Many writers specifically stick to either longer or shorter works. When you’re a novelist, it’s often harder to write short stories because you’re used to the longer form. When you’re used to writing short stories, the idea of writing a novel can seem intimidating.

Novelists can still benefit from trying to write some shorter works here and there (and vise versa, but we’ll get there). The process of writing shorter fiction is actually a lot different than writing a longer work, and you might find it refreshing if you’re in need of a shift in routine for awhile.

You pretty much have to know what you’re getting into before you start

Part of the fun of writing a novel is that you don’t always have to know all of the major plot points before you start writing. There is enough material to build on as you go that helps you weave everything together. This isn’t the case with shorter fiction.

You will probably want to outline most of your story before you start, and there are a few good reasons for this. For one thing, a short story or novella seems, psychologically, like much less of a commitment than a novel. It is much more tempting to abandon what you’ve started because you have not spent as much time working on it.

For another, going off on ‘tangents’ while writing a shorter work is dangerous. You don’t have the room to take your reader on a dozen side roads while your main story is going on. See point #3.

Attention-grabbing is a constant variable

The same way a shorter work of fiction probably seems like less of a commitment to you writing-wise, picking up a shorter work of fiction is not as big of a commitment to your reader, either. It’s much easier for someone to set down a short story or novella if they get bored, because, simply, it’s shorter. It doesn’t seem like they’re going to miss out on that much.

So you have to not only grab their attention right away, but you have to hold it. Constantly. You have to grip them, pull them in, and continue to do so on every single page. In all honesty, this is hard. People have short attention spans. And not everyone will be captivated by the same story elements. You just have to do your best, and put more time and energy into moving the story along at a fast, interesting pace.

You have to be careful not to go too deep

Most writers love the deep stuff. Using fancy techniques to pull a reader closer and closer toward a revelation is fun and a little addicting once you get the hang of it. It’s important to go light on these methods when you’re working on a short story or novella. If you don’t, you risk promising a reader something without following through (DANGER. DANGER.)

You need to be more cautious of how many hints you give about underlying issues, secrets and back stories.

Stick to as few sub conflicts as possible. Make it complicated, but don’t forget to tie up your loose ends. The worst thing you can do is lead your reader down a trail that goes nowhere.

Can you think of any more ways the short fiction writing process is different than writing a novel? Leave them in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Happy writing!

Image courtesy of Kate Ter Haar/

3 thoughts on “How the Process of Writing a Short Story Differs from Writing a Novel

  1. Great post. I love a good short story, but I find short stories more challenging to write. I am currently working on a short story for a contest with a 2500 word limit. I’m pulling my hair out trying to get under 2500 and still be descriptive.

  2. Every word matters in a story – no matter the length, but in a short story the weight of a single word is heavier, so word choices have to be relevant. And in turn, there is a greater need for superfluous writing to be removed in a short story.

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