How Long Are Short Stories? Or Should It Be a Novel?

Perhaps the most organic way to discover a novel idea is by writing a short story and realizing -- or having someone point out to you -- that what you're dealing with is bigger than a story. Sometimes you will just begin to write something -- not knowing whether it will be a short story or novel -- and discover what it is after you begin. 

How do you know if a story is begging for a larger format? Here are some signs that your short story is actually a novel in disguise.

Is Your Novel Idea Truly Novel?

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Have you seen this story before? Does it feel overly familiar or trite? Though Willa Cather was correct when she said, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves," you must tell the story so that it feels completely new to the reader. Avoid stereotypes in characterization and setting. Is your take on the story truly original? Are you showing your reader something they already know, but in a new way? 

The Short Story Is Simply Too Long.

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Like poetry, there's a certain elegance to short story writing: space allows for only the essentials. A short story should run no longer than 10,000 words, and this is on the outside. (At 10,000 words, you're still pushing it with most journals.) If you've already pared the story down to what is necessary and it's still too long, you may be dealing with something bigger.

Remember: if you open the door to a new aspect of the story, you have to go inside. This means that you either need to cut off certain paths that your prose follows, or you need to expand and commit to those narratives. 

Too Many Characters Are Needed to Tell the Story.

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If the number of characters in your story makes it confusing, first check to see if any can be eliminated or combined. You may often find that more than one character can fulfill the same need in your story, and therefore can be combined. However, if too many people are still necessary, this is a sign that your plot is that of a novel, not a story.

The Theme, or Themes, Have Not Been Fully Developed.

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If you're working with themes rather than a theme, this is already a good sign that you're craving a more generous format. Be very clear with what you're trying to communicate through the story, and whether or not you've been successful. Is the theme too big to explore in under 10,000 words?

The Story Encompasses Too Long a Time Frame.

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Although there are no hard and fast rules, a short story generally covers a brief period of time. With exceptions, most short stories cannot comfortably cover years of a character's life. If your plot involves an afternoon or a few hours, you're probably right to choose the story format. If your plot encompasses a year, or years, of people's lives, you've probably got a novel on your hands.

That said, there are novels that cover short periods of time as well. The pages you need to tell a story will depend on your writing style.

One of Your Readers Has Pointed out That This Could Be a Novel.

If someone has said to you, "Hey, I'd like to read more of this," it's a good sign that you've stumbled onto some rich material. Before embarking on something as time-consuming as a novel, you do want to be sure that you've chosen a topic or a story that will hold people's interest. It's not an easy thing to achieve, so if you've done it, pay attention.

You Don't Want to Stop Working on It.

The most important thing in writing a novel is that the material can sustain your attention for the years it will take to finish the book. If the thought of living with these people for longer than a month makes you tired, don't torture yourself, no matter what your readers say. On the other hand, if this story has only whet your appetite, then keep working. If you're lucky enough to find something that inspires you to that degree, by all means, go with it.