How to write a book

How to turn a short story into a novel

I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng:
I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?

Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.

Stonehenge replica proved disappointingly small in This Is Spinal Tap
Spinal Tap were hoping it would be bigger

How much do you plan?

Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)

Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)

sidebarcropGo the distance

When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.

Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)

What to enlarge

So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.

Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.

Here’s my post on how to outline – developed for Nanowrimo, but it lists the essentials for making a good start.  Here’s a post on troubleshooting your novel outline. And here’s one about filling the gaps in your story. And here’s how I work – in pictures.

A writer of two minds

Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.

The wonders of revision

Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.

ebookcovernyn3There’s a lot more about adding subplots and generating story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have difficulty making your stories long enough? Is there a natural length that you handle comfortably and are you happy with that? What would you tell Kristy?


34 thoughts on “How to turn a short story into a novel

  1. Great post, Roz! I find my problem is more the other way: I can imagine big enough for a novel, but don’t ask me to write a short story. In the early days I could do it, but these days I have a really tough time narrowing my vision to 3k words or less.

  2. Great question and answer! I’ve had a similar question on my mind for a long time as I tend to write shorter stuff – 3k word stories max. Even my novels have been towards the short side (60k and 80k). I always need to plan even sometimes for a short story, so planning for a novel is essential. I remember reading that PG Wodehouse would make about a hundred pages of notes before starting a novel!

  3. When I was new to this writing game I couldn’t even imagine writing a novel. Back then I was a natural born flash fiction writer. I think it was an extremely helpful way to begin — I got practice writing beginnings, middles and endings. And now I can happily write long (longest to date approximately 66 k) or short (under 1000 words).
    Thank you for this helpful article.

    1. Thanks, Leanne – what an interesting progression you describe. And now you’ve found your stamina for writing long, are you able to go back to shorter works? I find I don’t want to. Even if an idea seems negligible in isolation, I wait until I have a big book I can slot it into.

  4. I’m with Julie Holmes — my ideas may appear to be a short story when I start them, but they quickly grow to something bigger. Thankfully, there are opportunities for publication of many different story sizes these days. Novellas and longer short stories are more common than they used to be, especially in e-book form or within anthologies.

    Whichever way we are trying to work things (shorter or longer), the tips Roz shared are always solid… Now the fun part is doing the work to apply them!

  5. Interesting discussing here; very educating for me. The long and the short aren’t what they used to be. I’ve heard that publishers, at some point in time, demanded a minimum of 100,000 words for a hardcover novel, which made sense in the era of the shop display. Short stories were quite long compared to today; J.G. Ballard once complained that he wanted to write new stories but that magazines wanted him to take 3000 words as a maximum, or rather 2000, which he thought was ridiculous — his argument was that you can’t build up sufficiently in so few words. Being familiar with his work, I think he has a point. Today, in the era of the ebook, length is taking the first step towards a totally new meaning. I’m working on a series of crime novels that are very short (approximately 27,000 words each) because I believe that readers will be looking for books to read “quickly and in between”, and because I believe the art of the concise novel (as done before by Ian Fleming and Simenon, for instance) seems to be largely forgotten. But are my novels actually prolonged short stories? Who knows. On an ebook, apart from the price it doesn’t really matter. Nevertheless, I find writing a longer novel from a simple story always difficult and will be checking out your other posts! Thanks.

    1. Hi Martin! Oh good points. The publisher’s ideal length is fixed by commercial concerns – shipping costs, for instance – and also what readers want. Fantasy novelists are usually required to thump out hefty tomes so they’ll promise a big enough experience.
      With ebooks anything goes, because distribution is nil, tho readers can still get annoyed if they get a scanty volume when they were hoping for something long. But maybe it’s also freed us to write what the work deserves.

  6. I have the opposite problem! I haven’t a clue how to write a short story. My write’s group tells me “Yes, you can do it!” But I think I would need to study Short Story Writing in order to even begin. It was the same way with my novel. I had read hundreds but I had no idea how to write one.

  7. Thanks very much for this great post – and the links within it – as my lack of ability to create longer stories really is my biggest downfall. Even when I read my short stories back to myself I want more from them but can’t see past the neat little bow it’s tied up in. This will help I’m sure!

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