7 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Make You A Better Novelist

If you dig into a writing group, you’ll likely discover two camps: short story writers and novelists. Short story writers specialize in a greater number of short pieces of fiction (let’s say up to 10,000 words), while novelists spend their time writing fewer long works (an “average” adult novel is 80,000 – 100,000 words). Writers in both of these camps basically want the same thing: to improve their craft and to be published and read.

Many writers move between camps, if you will. Some view short story writing as practice for eventual novel writing. Novelists may view short stories as a way to hone their skills without spending months to years on a single story.

I’m part of that last group.

I wrote three short-ish novels before I decided to write a short story. I didn’t really know how to write a short story – I may or may not have Googled “how to write a short story.” Since then, I’ve written 30 short stories, and all but one are published on this blog. Even my admittedly clunky first effort is here. I’ll explain what happened to the one that isn’t here at the end of this post.

While short stories aren’t my primary focus of literary creation, the skills I’ve developed while writing them have improved my practice as a novelist in several ways.

Side note: when I say “short story” I likely mean “flash fiction.” Flash fiction pieces are short short stories – not more than 1,000 words. Most of my short stories are flash fiction pieces.

1. Short stories force you to be concise.

The majority of my short stories are responses to flash fiction challenges. Those typically have word count limits of 1,000  – 2,000 words. One had a limit of 100 words. In working with any of those limits, there just isn’t space to write out elegant scene descriptions or detailed character backstory. Writing concisely is well worth practicing, because that stuff usually gets edited out of a novel anyway. You have to figure out how to weave it into the narrative to keep the story moving and waste no words.

many characters2. Short stories challenge you to wear different hats.

By that I mean you write characters you ordinarily wouldn’t, especially not for the length of a novel. In my stories I’ve been a 20-something single woman, a 30-something married woman, a 50-something cross dressing priest, a teenage girl, a teenage boy with telekinetic powers, an ex-con, a mountain climber, a divorcee, an astronaut, an old woman, a mom, a dad, a ghost, a sister on a revenge mission, a hunter in a fantasy world, a football player, a parent convicted of child neglect, and a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, among a few others. The list of characters I’ve been in my novels is much, much shorter.

3. Short stories challenge you to write in different genres.

In novels, I primarily write mystery and suspense for YA and adult audiences. In short stories, I’ve written literary fiction, romance, horror, erotica, spec-fic, mystery, paranormal, historical, and romcom. In writing short stories, you may stumble into a new genre that you enjoy writing. It happened to me (see what that was about at the end of the post).

4. Short stories are a risk-free way to try new devices. 

In my novels, I write in third person limited POV, past tense. In short stories, I almost always write in first person POV, present tense. I know an author who wrote a short story that was almost 100% dialogue. You can try different hooks and voices. Maybe you want to write from the perspective of a formless, ethereal presence. The point is if you want to try a new device, short stories let you do that without committing to it for the length of a novel. If it doesn’t work, it’s only cost you a thousand words and a couple of hours.

5. Short stories allow you to practice character arcs in a short space.

All good stories have definitive character arcs – that’s how the character changes from the beginning to the end. They may go from fearful to courageous, lonely to in love, pissed off to generous, and so on. Often, this change comes from learning something or from overcoming a challenge. The most common arcs are those where the character becomes a better person, but it can go the other way.

6. Short stories hone plotting skills.

Stories must have a beginning, middle, and end, even in the shortest pieces of flash fiction. In many narrative constructions, something happens around the midpoint that forces the character to head for the climax, or the point where they’re no longer striving for the thing they’ve been working towards for the story’s duration. They either get the thing or they don’t.

7. A short story could launch your next novel. 

Remember how I said all but one of my short stories are on this blog? Sometimes you’ll land on a compelling idea that deserves more space than a short story allows. That’s what happened to the missing story – a tale about a teenage boy who survived a pandemic and developed shapeshifting abilities. I decided to expand on it, and it became Drake and the Fliers. I never thought I’d write an urban fantasy novel, and if I hadn’t written the short story first, Drake’s novel wouldn’t exist.

How have short stories fit into your writing practice? 

33 thoughts on “7 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Make You A Better Novelist

  1. Pingback: 7 Ways Writing Short Stories Can Make You A Better Novelist – Vickie Phelps, Writer, Author, and Booklover

  2. Pingback: New Year’s Flash Fiction Challenge | Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

  3. Pingback: What Did You Like? 2015 In Review | Allison Maruska

  4. Great points, Allison! I’m primarily a memoir writer and from that perspective, your post was especially interesting because the relationship between personal essay and memoir is similar. Writing short very definitely helps hone the craft of writing long. Also, it is so fulfilling to actually finish something (like a short story or a personal essay) in less than a year or two. I say that from the perspective of having written 12 published books in the past nearly 30 years, and hundreds of shorter pieces. Okay, if you count the radio scripts, thousands. I always learn something from my shorter work that carries over to my longer work. Thanks for reminding me of why that is. And making me curious about writing fiction…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love writing short stories.My entire blog is a collection of short stories.They help you explore different aspects of the craft.I havent written a novel yet but I am finishing a book of inter-related short stories.It is one story but it is not a novel.It is a bit of an experimental format.My friend used it and won 4 awards.I have thought of publishing from my blog

    Liked by 1 person

    • That format sounds interesting – almost like Wool, perhaps.
      Someone has been nudging me to publish my short stories into a single volume I can sell, but I kind like having them on the blog for anytime reading. That said, if you have a bunch that would play well together in a volume, then it’s worth exploring.
      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

      Like

  6. I wrote short stories for many years before finally langing (and without ever meaning it) at writing novels. I do think it helped me a lot. True, transitioning from short story to novel wasn’t an easy thing to do, I still consider the short story length to be more managable then the novel, that why I always write a synopsis of the novel before I write the first draft, which is basically the short story of the novel 😉

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You’ve pinned down most of the reasons I love focusing on short stories. It’s a big part of my writing schedule for next year (channeling Ray Bradbury’s advice to write one every week, at least). You make some excellent points, thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’ve enjoyed doing a couple of flash fiction challenges and getting an immediate response which got me into posting brief bursts of poetry which get likes in minutes and encourages me that I can write and revitalises my energy to get on with culling the overwriten first draft of my first novel, the almost all dialogue two headed monster I’ve mentioned before. My biggest challenge is making comments as I always make mistakes or accidentally hit send before ready. I’m typing into a narrow letter box window right now on a tablet with finger tips that dwarf words. I’ll make sense one day!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I began writing short stories for many of the same reasons you did. I had a terrible habit of overwriting (all my novels have been cut by a third), and flash fiction seemed like a great method of developing concision.

    But it’s become much more than an end to a means.

    I’ve published short stories in online mags and anthologies, which gave my self-confidence a much-needed boost. I NEEDED the outside confirmation that I was a good writer at that point.

    And if you’re someone like me, who has more story ideas than she can possibly ever put into novels, it’s a way of getting the voices in your head to shut up. Now I’ve written that tale. The voice is satisfied now. It’s been heard.

    And there’s something about the immediacy that’s satisfying. A complete story, edits, feedback and all, done in under a week. Nothing picks me up in the middle of slogging through a novel revision like writing a short.

    Thanks for sharing, Allison. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have found that participating in a weekly flash fiction (99 words) challenge really makes me think about and choose my words carefully. You’ve certainly nailed the benefits in this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I have written novels, a play, and a web serial that went on for eight years. But I haven’t finished writing a short story since I took creative writing in high school. I either get bored with them or they turn into longer works.

    Liked by 1 person

      • My edit-as-I-go writing style is probably what’s getting in the way of my finishing a short story. Next time, I’ll try the get-it-down-and-then-fix-it-later approach, no matter how much my “mistakes” are driving me crazy, a la Joan Crawford and the wire hangers.

        I may or may not republish the eight-year web serial in ebook form. There are a lot of pros and cons to consider on that front. I need to get my novel out first. Then we’ll see…

        Like

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s