Novel vs. Short Story: The Long and the Short of It

A good short story is more difficult to write than a novel. This is the conventional wisdom I remember from writing workshops and many books on the art of fiction. The argument goes something like this: Every word must count in a short story. The limitation of size and scope of the short story demand economy of language and precision in choice of detail.  Handling of dramatic development must be skilled to hold conflict, complication, climax and resolution in the space of twenty pages or less.  On the other hand, a novelist has latitude to be profligate. The novel in its sweep is forgiving in lapses of craft if the general flow is right.  As writers and readers we ought to examine the contention that shaping a small, delicate object entails more skill than a work of larger magnitude. Looking at other art forms, is it true that  a miniature sculpture of an elephant is more difficult to carve than a life-size one?  Is a small painting of a few square feet more difficult to paint than a mural that occupies the entire side of a building?

Sometimes aspiring writers are advised to master the short story before turning their hand to a novel. Many novelists have started with short stories before they wrote a first novel. Throughout her prolific career Joyce Carol Oates has worked in both genres.  Often the short story is viewed as a proving ground for fledgling novelists, the assumption being if the short story writer produces a great short story, of course, that same author can write a great novel. The decision whether a story lends itself better to treatment in a short story versus in a novel depends on such considerations as one main character seen over a short period of time or many characters interacting over years. A novel provides the scope for a many-layered story with multiple themes. The term slice of life arose to describe the short story’s close-up focus on one character, one event, and one main theme.

I’ve taken a second look at this prevalent notion that writing an excellent short story is more difficult than writing an excellent novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that the novel is the more difficult accomplishment. The difficulty does not lie in that one genre requires more discipline, craft, or artistry with the techniques of fiction than the other does; but that the novel’s size and the sustained emotional intensity over a far longer period of time account for its difficulty.

The short story is  a sprint of high energy; in contrast, the novel is an endurance run. I like to describe the process of writing a novel as a long journey into night–a night where morning does not come until the book is done.  Granted, the elements of fiction and the techniques of the craft are the same.  The novel is just longer and because of its length, of course, entails greater complexity and requires more time to complete; but the real difficulty arises in the novelist’s effort to maintain a consistent emotional intensity throughout the expanse of the novel and over the months or years that it takes to write a work of several hundred pages.

Instead of weighing one genre more difficult than another, we should describe the short story and the novel as simply different. One is long and one is short . . . for good reasons.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Yes! They’re difficult in different ways. I started with novels. Now that I’m venturing into short story writing, I find that it can be a relief from the sustained intensity of the longer form. But I’m not sure it’s any less difficult.


    • I’m only sure that they’re different in length and that the novel’s longer length is the only reason it can be considered more difficult. I took a few halting steps at short stories before I wrote a novel. I started writing novels because I wanted a general readership and writing books of poetry was not cutting it beyond small literary magazines read by the writers they publish. I sneak in poetry in my novels whenever I think I can get away with it.


  2. Posted by Nancy Payne on February 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    I must agree that the novel is more difficult than a short story. I’ve written several short stories and decided I could do the novel. Found it much more difficult–haven’t even finished it yet. The short story is a snapshot, the novel is a movie.


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