Transitioning From the Short Story to the Novel - guest article by Dr Petra McNulty

This month, I asked friend and colleague Petra McNulty about the challenges involved in transitioning between short and long forms of fiction (or vice versa). To follow is Petra's article, which provides valuable insight into the differences between the forms from the perspective of a writer.


From the Novel to the Short Story and Back Again

After writing a novel for my MA (having completed another previous to the course) I fully intended to write my PhD thesis as a novel. However, after lengthy discussion with my supervisor, I was persuaded that a short story cycle would be better suited to the subject I was exploring. 

It was a very steep learning curve, transitioning from the novel to the short story. At the beginning, I was writing mini novels – I’d totally misunderstood the difference between the two prose forms. It took me a long time to learn that a short story usually involves one simple conflict, or a moment in time and doesn’t provide an ending or the resolution you usually find in novels. I learned to delete the beginning, dive in media res, then get out before the end. Lengthy descriptions disappeared, the language became simpler and more direct – every single word has to earn its place on the page. I was told to treat the editing process like a game of Jenga – to see how much I could remove from the story without it actually collapsing. I also discovered that short stories rely much more heavily on Wolfgang Iser’s, ‘…gaps, blanks and indeterminacies’ to allow the reader ‘the imaginative space to engage with the text’. With a short story, a lot of the spade work is left to the reader. My supervisor – an award-winning short story writer - told me that the real story wasn’t what was written on the page, it was lurking in those gaps, in what wasn’t said. I found this difficult – the difference between novel and short story writing felt like the difference between completing a normal crossword and a cryptic one. I was used to exploring ideas in great depth over the course of a novel, weaving many strands together over time, playing with multiple characters – a short story usually involves just one or two main protagonists. I eventually pared my writing down to its essentials, hinting at the real story through symbolism and suggestion and juxtaposition. 

After my PhD I embarked on another book, but this time I knew it had to take the form of a novel – albeit not quite following the traditional structure. I had two main protagonists who took it in turns to tell the story from their prospective, one in first person POV and the other in close third. These sections (as opposed to chapters) were interspersed with what I called ‘Factoids’ (thank you, Steve Wright) which underpinned – in a cynically humorous way, using a series of little known facts – what was being explored in the previous section. I hadn’t made the complete break from the short story cycle. What I had to learn to do again though, was to explore the themes of the book in depth rather than padding out the skeleton of a short story. When I first made notes for the novel, they were in short bullet points, and I realised I didn’t have enough information to write a whole book – not enough happened. In a short story, you can get away with very little happening as long as the main protagonist changes in some way, whereas a novel needs a dramatic arc. I discovered that the novel and the short story are different animals; they work in completely different ways. A novel is not a 250-page short story, and a short story is not a novel condensed into a few pages. To move from a short story to a novel it is essential to scale up the ideas, the characters, the conflict, and the world in which all that takes place. I had to remind myself to interrogate my characters; understand their goals/wants, their motivation(s), the  obstacles in their way, the stakes. I had to think about the story arc, the setting, the inciting incident at the beginning, the first hurdle, the second hurdle, the climax – which relates back to the inciting incident – none of which are necessary in a short story. And I also remembered very quickly, how big, and unwieldy a novel is compared to a short story – how difficult it is without careful planning and, in my case, a plot grid, to keep an eye on different characters, different storylines, the arc of the story, the three acts which readers expect. 

I’m now working on my fourth novel, I’m also writing short stories and have just begun to write Flash fiction (a different animal again). I find that I can switch between them because I now recognise ideas which can only ever be short stories and, in some cases, flash fiction, and those which demand careful unpicking over a greater length. I have found that writing short stories has made my prose more efficient, leaner, more streamlined. I cut the fat off a sentence automatically as I write it rather than having to do it at the editing stage. But I know that I have to have an in-depth, solid basis for my novel before I begin to write – the characters have to have important issues to deal with, obstacles to overcome, flaws to address, which provide enough moments of dramatic action as well as psychological depth. You can’t take a short story and pad it out to become a novel – you have to approach both endeavours differently. Personally, I have never tried to expand a short story into a novel, however,  if I ever did believe a short story had legs and could be developed I think the best approach would be to analyse the character(s) in the story, and the plot as well as the theme and just begin again from scratch – approaching it as a novel not weaving new characters into the original story. A good place to start would be to ask yourself what happens at the end of the short story, where does your protagonist go from here – make that the novel. But it’s essential to realise that the difference between a short story and a novel is not simply the word count.

Dr Petra McNulty

Author, Editor, Writing Coach

18th October 2023

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