Write On - Size Matters

Picture from  Isabelle Grosjean ZA

Picture from Isabelle Grosjean ZA

So, you have an idea for a story. You’ve asked yourself lots of questions and you know you have a central situation in which one or two main characters find themselves, which they don’t like and want to change.

The essence of any story is to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In the beginning you establish who the story is about – you draw your main character and you attempt to make the reader like him/her. You also give your main character a problem. Something is wrong in their life or their world. Something needs to be changed in order to save the character’s self-respect/the company/the princess/the world.

Beginning = establish the character and his problem.

In the middle we follow the character as he tries to solve his problem. In a typical story the character will have about three tries at saving the thing that needs saving, and he will fail each time. Ideally, when he fails, he will make the situation worse, until finally it looks utterly hopeless. The point at which the situation looks utterly hopeless is called the ‘black moment’, and it’s there to rack up the tension and the sense of peril – the sense that an unhappy ending is just around the corner.

Middle = the character tries to solve the problem, only to end up in a situation where everything looks hopeless.

But our character does not succumb to despair. He pulls one final attempt out of the bag and against all the odds he succeeds this time, solving the problem, making the world of his story a better place and learning the virtues of persistence/self-sacrifice/whatever virtue you were writing about in the process.

End = the character pulls out all the stops and succeeds, learning something in the process. The world is left better off (even though you may have introduced a second problem later on to set up a sequel.)

This is a very basic account of how it works.

For example – in a romance [beginning] we meet the characters. Each character’s goal is that they want to end up with the other, but both of them have a problem which is preventing that. Maybe A is already married, and B has a psychotic alien bounty hunter on his trail and doesn’t want A to get messed up in his life.

[middle] Now both of them attempt to solve their problems – A asks for a divorce, B sets a bear trap in his garden. But this only leads to A’s partner deciding they need to go to relationship counselling, and B finds an actual bear in his trap which tries to maul him. Oh noes! It all looks hopeless.

[ending] But then A has the brilliant idea of disguising his partner as B. The bounty hunter kills his spouse and A and B are free to be together (until the intergalactic police come to arrest them for the murder of the bear.)

Every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Short stories are no exception to this. The same structure holds true whether you’re writing something 1000 words long or 100,000 words long.

So how do you know what the right size is before you start writing?

This is largely a matter of complexity. The best short stories consist of one single, brilliant idea developed without any subplots or verbiage. What would happen if someone went into the past and stepped on a single butterfly? Would it unravel the whole future? What would a car accident look like from the perspective of the tree they crashed into?

Short stories tend to be very minimal. One person, one problem, one attempt at solving it, one shocking twist of a conclusion.

This doesn’t make them easy. Far from it, in fact. There is less space in a short story to make mistakes, to waffle around until you find the direction you want to go in, to have some fantastic things make up for the less brilliant stuff. Short stories have to be self contained, disciplined and lucid. I think they are the hardest thing of all to write.

If you have an idea that you really want to explore from the perspective of two or more people, something where you want to add a bit of complexity, a digression or two where your characters meet someone particularly awesome, or explore an awesome setting, or do something to exemplify some philosophical point at tangent to your main story, then you are looking at a longer form.

All stories have a beginning, middle and end, but some stories also have sub-plots. Subplots are like a little extra story woven into the larger one. Maybe during one of your character’s attempts to solve his problem, he goes off to Tibet to learn snow-magic from the yetis. Now you have a little story inside your story where the character has a sub-problem [how to find the yetis and convince them to teach him magic] and this too needs a middle and an end. [He tries bribing them with yaks, but they’re not having it. Then he saves the life of their shaman and succeeds, emerging having learned to control snow and ready to go and use this in the pursuit of his larger goal.]

It’s a good rule of thumb that the longer you want your story to be, the more characters you should add. But each of these characters has to be woven into the book’s overarching plot somehow, so unless you want to write something as long as the ASOIAF series, five main characters is probably an upper limit for a novel.

Whether you gravitate more to short or long forms will largely depend on the kind of story ideas that come to you by nature. The minimalist, single brilliant ideas of short stories can’t really be developed into novels, and the sprawling complexity of novel ideas can’t usually be reduced into shorts.

But the modestly complex ideas suitable for novellas can easily grow while you’re writing them and end up as novels. My feeling is that if you find that happening, it’s good to go with it. Never look a gift novel in the mouth.

You can also make short stories into novels if you really want to. I wrote Captain’s Surrender that way. By writing each incident in the characters’ ongoing relationship as a story of its own [Josh kisses Peter and Peter doesn’t condemn him], [Peter puts down a mutiny], [Peter decides Josh makes a good alternative to debauching the local women], [Josh appears to die in a naval victory and Peter grieves], etc etc, I was able to finish each part and feel a sense of achievement over each individual story, while slowly building an arc that would stand as one novel.

This is also how I wrote my first ever finished novel – an old man tells a story about Loki, Loki appears and tells a story about his listener’s true love, his listener finds the true love and tells her a story that means she has to come back home with him etc.

I don’t honestly think it’s a good way of writing a novel. In both cases, the joins are visible (at least to me) and the internal structure of the stories fights against the structure of the overarching plot. But if you have problems achieving length in a story – if you can only think of short story ideas, and you desperately want to write a novel – this is the only way I know of to turn one into the other. And the experience of fitting a series of shorts into an overarching structure which tells a novel plot from start to finish is very good experience in what goes into a novel, so that next time you can plot the novel without needing the stepping stones of the shorts.

To sum up. Look at the idea you got last week and ask yourself ‘how many main characters have I got?’ ‘How many problems have they got?’ ‘How many different settings are there?’ ‘How many potential ways are there for an attempt to solve this problem to fail?’

If the answer to most of these things is ‘one’ then you’ve probably got a short story on your hands. If it’s ‘Oh God, where do I start, there’s so many?’ then you have a novel. If it’s somewhere in the region of ‘a few’, then start off aiming for a novella, and see whether it grows as you go. It may, it may not. If this stuff was entirely predictable it would be a science, but it’s not. It’s art, and uncertainty comes with the territory.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

What happens when the character starts out wanting to solve a ‘problem’, but towards the middle comes to realize the problem is not really a problem, but then makes a mistake, creates a new problem, and ends up trying to solve that?
Does this sound like a possible short story, something longer, or a mess that should be kicked the way of the mauling bear?

Lillian Francis
Lillian Francis
11 years ago

Your examples made me LOL. Now I want to read about bear traps and yeti snow magic!

11 years ago

Well I was hoping that I could somehow turn this into a short story, but I guess not. 🙁
Thank you for this article, I’ve never really thought of classifying stories as ‘short’ and ‘novels’ in terms of structure. 🙂


[…] Size Matters Alex Beecroft on how you decide if you’ve got a short or a beast of a novel on your hands when you come up with a story idea. […]

11 years ago

Actually I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to make it a short story, but this confirmed it for me. I was planning to send it to a literary magazine originally. I guess I’ll just finish writing it, and then decide what to do with it…..

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x