How does writing a short story differ from writing a novel?
Teddy posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Does a short story have the same three act structure (three disasters, plus climax)as a novel?
Randy sez: A short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, like a novel. However, you simply don’t have the space to build up to three major disasters and then work through a full-resolution ending, as you would in a novel.
I’m no master of the art of short story writing, but I’d say that you have a lot more latitude for structuring a short story than you do with a novel. As you go up the length scale for short stories, you’ll have room to put in more of the large-scale features of a novel.
However, the lowest level structure of the story (what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation-Reaction Units” — MRUs for short) is identical in a short story and in a novel. The reason is that this is where you “show, don’t tell.” And you only have a very few tools for “showing” — Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, Interior Emotion, and Description. Those tools are the same, whether you’re writing short or writing long.
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James Thayer says
Many folks think that a short story and the novel are hugely different. But the distinction is simple: a short story is short, and a novel is long.
Because a short story is short, it can waste no words. 1) It usually features one point of view. 2) It often tells of one main action in the life of the protagonist, often in one scene. 3) There usually isn’t room for back-story, set-up, subplots or other things that don’t directly affect the main action. Edgar Allan Poe said a short story should strive to create “the single effect,” a single emotional impact that imparts a flash of understanding, though both impact and understanding may be complexity. A short story is sharp and economic. An excellent example is William Carlos Williams’ The Use of Force, available at http://www.fti.uab.es/sgolden/docencia/force.htm .
Phillip Conrad says
I have read three act short stories, but they are pretty rare. Usually, doing justice to a single act in the short story format is pretty difficult. A lot of them follow the basic pattern of Puzzle – Solution, Problem – Remedy, or Question – Answer. Maybe that’s two acts, but it reads almost musically, when it’s good. There’s no room to spell out multiple failures to achieve the story goal. I find them amazingly difficult to write, despite being shorter than novels.
Grab a copy of Alfred Hitchcock, or Ellery Queen magazine and read some current ones. Alternately, you could get Analog, if you like Sci-Fi. Not coincidentally, these are magazines represent the most obvious short story market, and they will take unagented submissions. It’s no cakewalk though! The authors who get published in these magazines are good!
O’Henry, Checkov, Poe, Woolrich and Lovecraft are all considered masters of the craft. Time spent reading them certainly isn’t time wasted. You can also get a pretty good sense of what formats are popular from anthology-style T.V. shows, like the Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, etc. If you like the experimental, try searching out Flash Fiction. I don’t know if there’s a market for it, but people do have a lot of fun writing and reading it.
Here’s a link to one of my favorites by O’Henry. I apologize if you find the subject matter objectionable in any way. These are weird, guarded times. Amazingly, I was assigned to read this in school, in elementary school I think. It reads like a single third act, bracketed by a quick inciting incident and a very fast conclusion. Problem – Explain Problem and Plan (most of the story) – execution – result. Anyway, enjoy:
Tony Smith says
I personally think EVERY story should have a 3 act structure regardless of length. Think of Little Miss Muffet. It is a classic example of 3 act structure in a very short piece.
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey; (end Act 1)
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her (end Act 2)
And frightened Miss Muffet away. (end Act 3)
My experience in writing short stories (not published yet) is that I usually only have space in my 8-10k words for one major disaster and the resolution.
Frequently the major disaster occurs before the story starts or right at the beginning, and the story is “about” how the POV responds to this catastrophe.
I’ve tried to put in more acts but they just get too sketchy (more like a prose outline), or the story grows out of the 10-15k word envelope of a short story. My experience suggests to me that it takes about 10 – 15k words to properly develop a disaster, the fallout and response. I’d guess that this is why the minimum length for a novel is 60-80k words.
Van Arie says
I think the most important part of a Short Story is to make it rewarding at the end. Some catch you right away and others make you work for the climatic ending. I personally couldn’t say there is a right or wrong way to write one. Only that some turn out much better than others.
Thanks Randy and newburydave.
This is really good info. The more short stories I crafted the more I came to the same conclusion. I,too,tried to add more acts but the story rapidly slides sideways and ends up a confusing mess. There’s so little out there about short story structure. Some magazines only want 2,00-3,000 words from first time writers, so you’ve got to have your story on straight from the beginning. Really appreiate this blog.
My blog has a number of shorties that never knew the three-act structure. The structure, in general, is there only if you think it is.