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I am asking this question as someone who has read many short stories and novels, so in theory, I should know the difference between the two.

However, I have found it difficult to write short stories/novellas differently than novels. In short stories, I can't figure out how to make the pacing quicker and get rid of subplots while still keeping the story interesting and not a drag.

This leads me to the main chunk of my concern: how do I know when my short story has become a novella or just a not absurdly large novel? How do I keep my plot interesting while cutting out the now-"unnecessary" subplots and adding detail?

From my experience, I know that authors approach this differently depending on writing style. While "keeping true to my writing style" is generally helpful advice, I'd prefer something more concrete. :)

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A short story is defined both by its short length (commonly less than 5,000 words) and the often more simple structure of its content:

  • typically one viewpoint character, usually the protagonist
  • often a narrative about one person's experiences
  • mostly very limited in theme, for example to one experience in one situation where one event happens
  • often very limited narrated time (an hour, an afternoon, a day)

The internal structure is similar to that of a novel (with exposition, inciting incident etc.), but more limited in its complexity due to its length. For example, there will not be a lot of foiled attempts at the goal during the rising action, rather the short story will steer (more) directly to the climax. And often backstory and worldbuilding will be kept to a bare minimum.

Personally, I wouldn't "cut out" parts that are "unnecessary" from an intended short story or pad a story to become a novel. I'd always write whatever the story demands. If my idea is not the idea for a short story, no amount of cutting will make it so. The result may be short, but it won't have the dynamic of a tale that "wanted" to be a short story, so to speak.

My advice would be to just write the stories as they naturally develop. You either have ideas (and a mind) for short stories or you don't.


As an example, let's take the myth of Procrustes, about which @Acccumulation wants to write either a short story or a novel (see their comment below).

Using the principles outlined above, in a short story told from the viewpoint of the protagonist, an unnamed wanderer toils up an unnamed mountain. As night falls, he comes upon a stronghold, where he begs for a bed for the night. The host offers him a bed. As it is too small (or too large), the host stretches the traveler on an amboss to make him fit, thereby killing him (or he cuts off his legs and turns him out the next morning to crawl down the mountain on bloody stumps).

In a novel, we would provide a backstory and describe the status quo in an exposition. There might be a village at the foot of Mount Korydallos. The road from Eleusis to Athens leads across that mountain and passes the stronghold of Procrustes who kills travellers in the described manner. One day, Theseus passes through that village like the man with no name in A Fistful of Dollars. He has a complex character, a backstory, a goal, an inner conflict that are revealed during the tale and provide conflict and obstacles for him. Motivated by his personality (e.g. for money) or his backstory (for reasons of his own) he agrees to kill Procrustes. He has to make several attempts, during which he changes as a person and his relationship to the villagers develops. He may fall in love. From his experiences in the village and with Procrustes he may turn from a mercenary to someone interested in the fate of the villagers; or he might turn from a hero, wanting to good, to an evil man. In the end he overcomes Procrustes, at some cost to himself. Maybe he loses his legs along the way but prevails. After he kills Procrustes, he becomes the new Procrustes. Or the road is destroyed in the process (by the Gods) and closed forever, so that the villagers have both gotten what they wanted and lost it.

This is a brief and incomplete kernel of a novel, but I hope you can see what I'm doing. I'm creating a complex narrative, with multiple characters whose different goals and personalities interact in a complex manner to create a longer narrative with many turns of events that slowly build up to a climax that changes the characters and the place fundamentally. In contrast, the short story takes one clearly defined element and focusses in on that, stripping down its tale to the bare essentials.

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    Aren't those criteria a little stringent?  They would seem to be broken by countless short stories…  For example, Isaac Asimov's The Last Question has seven scenes spanning trillions of years, each with a different protagonist.  Admittedly, that's an extreme example — but I can think of many others which aren't restricted to a single event or a single time period.  (In fact, having multiple scenes seems more common than not.)  What seems to connect them is exploring a single idea or situation, and its cause and/or consequences.
    – gidds
    Commented Apr 30 at 15:28
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    @gidds Do you think listing possible extreme examples is helpful for a beginning writer who struggles with understanding the differences between different narrative formats? If you think you have a more helpful answer to OP's question, please provide it. This is not a scholarly article trying to define what a short story is. Please consider the context of the answer.
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 30 at 17:58
  • I'm trying to write a story based on the myth of Proscrustes, but I haven't been able to make it long enough to be a novel or short enough to be a short story. Commented May 1 at 0:47
  • @Acccumulation I added some ideas how you might approach that as an example at the end of my answer.
    – Ben
    Commented May 1 at 5:29
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They both have a plot. But obviously, in the short story, the plot must be relatively simple and straightforward. The characters cannot be described in much depth, the author must appeal to "types", a loving father, a vengeful spurned lover, a crooked cop, a thief, two siblings, etc, that the reader should recognize.

Most short stories are only going to have one big twist (surprise or setback) in the plot.

In short (!) the short story has the same elements as a novel, the same 3-Act structure, but instead of each of the 16 key-points in the 3-Act structure occupying a chapter, they occupy about a page.

[Math: 5000 words divided by about 250 words per page is 20 pages.]

To write a short story, cut back hard on the plot complexity, and both character complexity and character count. You need a relatively simple story that is interesting, and you don't have the room to develop many characters.

For the same reason, short stories seldom have many unusual settings, because the introduction and description of such settings eat up words. So we end up using more generic settings the reader is already familiar with like homes, hospitals, woods, city streets, shops, and so on, that can be described in a paragraph or two.

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