By Samantha Martin
As an avid reader and writer, I have been writing “novels” since the age of nine. I love the process of building a complex world and characters over many, many pages. I used to dislike short-form work, such as short stories and novellas, for the simple reason that I did not feel I could tell a complete, meaningful story in such few words. However, when I entered college-level writing courses, I discovered that almost all of them revolve around short stories. And though I grumbled at first, longing for the freedom to fill hundreds of pages instead of just a few, I now thoroughly enjoy short-form work.
Not only can telling a story in just a few pages be challenging and fun, but it can help build skill sets that translate over to long-form work. Here are some of the top ways I’ve learned to utilize short-story skills in my longer work:
Creating characters is one of the most challenging aspects of writing, and one of the most useful pieces of advice on this front is to show, not tell. This somewhat vague phrase can take many practical forms. One way in which I utilize this advice is to develop and explore characters based on what they say and do rather than with narrative summary. For example, instead of saying “Julia was a slob,” I would take readers on a tour of her apartment, and show them the empty pizza boxes on the floor. When writing in short form, you don’t have much time to introduce us to your characters and take them on a journey. You can utilize this idea of getting characters developed well and quickly in the first chapters of your novel. Challenge yourself! Try to give us the general vibe of your protagonist in just one page.
2. Building Suspense
We’ve all seen the classic rising and falling action plot diagram. Every story, no matter how long, as a broad arc of rising and falling tension. However, what we sometimes don’t realize is that a novel has many instances of rising and falling action; many arcs of tension throughout the story. In a short story, there is usually one main arc of rising and falling action. Outlining a short story and recognizing where these beats of rising and falling action are will help you plot these beats in individual chapters and beats of your work. Raising the stakes keeps readers interested and gives your characters something to win and lose!
3. Making Purposeful Choices about Scene
One of the great lessons I have learned from short-form writing is that we always have to have an answer to the question Why today? Why can’t the story being told take place tomorrow, or yesterday? The same principle applies to your opening chapter. Consider why your story begins here and now rather than on a different day. Is there another time this story could begin that makes more sense? If your opening can happen on any old day, chances are it’s not your best option. Then, apply this to the rest of your manuscript. Try to find the purpose behind each scene you include. If you can’t seem to find one, odds are that it can be cut.
Though at first glance, short stories and novels may seem like very different forms, many skills used in one form may be applied to the other. It all comes down to the words.
Samantha Martin is an intern at Holloway Literary. Follow Samantha on Twitter @Am_I_Write.