Short story or novel? [2/52]

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Ray Bradbury is my favorite creative person ever. His passion and zeal for storytelling inspires me on a daily basis. I’ve often thought, “What I would ask Mr. Bradbury if I would have had a chance to meet him.”

Other than asking his favorite dinosaur or the best planet, I would ask him how he knows if a story idea should be a short story or a novel.

Let’s define some terms before we go any further. Short stories are usually considered to be in the 1500-10,000 word range. If your story is in the 10,000-30,000, you’ve got yourself a novella. Depending on genre, novels run anywhere between 30,000 and up. 70,000 words is a good target for a solid novel length. Sci-fi and fantasy usually cross the 100,000 word threshold.

There have been times where I’ve written a short story and people have read it and said, “I wish there was more.” This has probably happened to you too. I can’t help but getting sent down a spiral of, “Did I not explore this idea enough?” or “Did I get lazy and not finish the story?”

It’s a dangerous road.

Here are a few questions I ask to help me figure out if my story idea is a short story or novel:

  1. How many characters are involved? If your story has a cast of 8-10 characters, you’re probably looking at a novella at minimum.

  2. How many locations? Do you picture four or five locations? That is a lot of scenes to develop for a short story.

  3. Do you already know the ending? You can work backwards from the ending to build enough tension and develop your characters to give the ending the punch it needs, which might require more that 10,000 words to make the ending satisfying.

For writers just starting out, I always recommend Ray Bradbury’s short story challenge. He says to write one short story a week for a year, and most of them will be no good, but three or four will. He says, “I dare you to write 52 bad stories.”

I love this challenge because you get quick wins when you finish a short story and get a sense of accomplishment. The only way to learn is an idea is a short story or a novel is to write a lot. The more you write the more familiar you’ll get with story ideas in their early stages.

All that to say, don’t sweat it too much. The greatest novel of all time, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, was a short story before an editor told Bradbury he should expand it into a novel.

Jump. Build, Fly.
F.C. Shultz