Understanding the Difference between a Short Story and a Novel

Difference Between A Short Story And A Novel

As writers, all authors have a different medium which is why it is necessary to know the difference between a short story and a novel.

Most usually don’t come near short stories, while for others, the thought of writing a novel is enough to scare them. However, if you’re new to writing, it is a good idea to start with short stories and then progress to novels.

When making this transition, most people tend to believe that novels and short stories are not really different. A novel is just a richer, more detailed version of a short story, right? While this theory might and does make sense to a certain degree, a closer look will show you that there are multiple obvious differences between a short story and a novel.

Knowing these differences is crucial because confusion in your concepts can translate into confusion in your writing work. To ensure that you don’t face any trouble when writing one, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the most obvious differences between a short story and a novel here:

Their Word Count Varies

In general, short stories are short, and novels are longer, but what’s the exact word count here? Well, short stories can range from a word count of 2,000 to 20,000. On average, they mostly range from 3,000 to 5,000 words when published in a magazine.

Additionally, some publications and editors have their own word counts, with most requiring a short story to be around 5,000 to 15,000 words. Any short story that goes above 20,000 is classified as a novella. These are longer than short stories, but shorter than novels and often make up the gray area between short stories and novels.

Now, when it comes to the word count of novels, it usually ranges anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000 words. Reading a novel can take a person a few days, weeks or even months, whereas reading a short story can only take one a few hours.

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe - Father of Modern Short Story

For writers, the lesser word count is a great incentive to start writing a short story, particularly if writing a novel appears to be too intimidating. However, there are other aspects that you also have to take into account when writing a short story. These can make the task a bit more difficult than you would have thought at first.

They Have Different Definitions

Before you start any further, just look up what is a novel and what is a short story, and you’ll see that both mediums have different definitions which are in no way similar or connected to each other. Interestingly, you will also find that each author also has a different opinion regarding what a novel or a short story is.

For the sake of posterity, we’re going to go with the definition that was shared by Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe is hailed as the “Father of the modern short story,” and his work is a stunning example of what a good short story should be. However, when it comes to defining a novel, you’ll be hard pressed to find such a succinct and precise statement.

Despite the contradicting statements, in the words of Henry James, “The only thing that is expected of a novel is that it should be interesting.” This does mean that authors can enjoy a lot more leniency when writing a novel and be greatly scrutinized when writing a short story. However, most authors relish the challenge that comes with writing a short story.

They Have Different Writing Structures

A major difference between a short story and a novel is that they both have different writing structures to them. While novels have room to have a full structure, short stories have smaller segments instead of whole acts.

To be more precise, when you’re reading a novel, it can read more like a movie with different things happening in different settings. A novel can also cover the span of years for their characters. In contrast, short stories are more segmented.

They’re not going to include a full structure spanning three acts. Instead, you’ll get a brief overview of each segment. This is not to say that short stories are not as rich as novels. They’re just not as detailed but they’re still very effective. They also cover one area or setting in the character’s lives.

A good example of how a short story structure works can be seen in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Cask of Amontillado.” The story starts and ends in only one connected setting which is a Carnival in Venice, the mansion of the protagonist and the wine cellar which leads to the catacombs.

In contrast, a novel such as Alexander Dumas’ story The Count of Monte Cristo”, takes one on a journey, beginning from a different city and ends in another one, much like a movie. This makes for a more different writing structure than what you would find when reading a short story.

These are Fewer Characters in Short Stories

Another area where you will see a difference between a short story and a novel is the number of characters there are in the entire story. Short stories will only have a maximum of five characters that all play a central role in the plot. This is keeping in line with the fact that all short stories are meant to be read within one sitting.

It can be very difficult for some people to read a story that will end in a few hours and connect or follow different characters with ease. All of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories make use of minimal characters. “The Cask of Amontillado” only has two characters, Fortunato (the victim) and Montresor (the protagonist).

Interestingly, Poe will use animals as central characters in his short stories. In the story, “The Black Cat,” the main characters are a narrator, his wife and his favorite black cat only.

The use of narrators in Poe’s work is also very unique because it makes the reader become a character in the story as well as the confessor to whom someone is telling their secrets. This makes the reading experience more immersive.

Now, when you look at the characters in a novel, you’re going to meet a host of characters, each as life-like, realistic and with their own set of personal characteristics, habits and descriptors. Each character also plays a part in furthering the story or adding to the scene in some manner.

Alexander Dumas’s work, “The Three Musketeers” is a good example of having additional characters in the story. Not only were there Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artangnan, there are also the Musketeers servants, historical figures and other supporting actors.

It should be noted that since Dumas was being paid by the line, he used to add characters to the story to elongate conversations, thereby increasing the lines in his work and getting paid a bigger amount.

A modern day example of a novel with too many characters is probably the Game of Thrones series. Each book has so many characters that it can at times be difficult to keep track of who is who. Similarly, the Harry Potter series also has too many characters with more being introduced in each new chapter.

Only One Plot

Another area where you will notice an obvious difference between a short story and a novel is in the plot line. As a rule of thumb, short stories only follow one plot line from start to finish. At most, short stories can have a plot and a small twist which adds to the plot.

There’s not always enough room to add subplots without adding confusion into the story. When you’re reading short stories, you will notice that the plot is usually very tight and you will see that the character usually experiences one climatic twist before the story comes to an end.

Again, the works of Edgar Allan Poe are a good example. His short story The Masque of the Red Deathnot only follows one plot but also delivers a great climatic twist which readers might not have expected.

A novel, on the other hand, has plenty of subplots that add to the major climatic event in the story. A good example of this can be seen in the works of Jane Austen, particularly “Pride and Prejudice.”

While the main plot focus remains on how eligible Mr. Bingley is and the budding romance of Jane Bennett with him, other characters such as Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, George Wickham, Lydia and even Lady Catherine de Borough also play a key role here.

The novel takes us on a complete journey which starts with Elizabeth’s dislike of Mr. Darcy and through the different subplots eventually shows that Mr. Darcy is no longer as disagreeable to Elizabeth as she had first found him to be.

While it can be argued that there was one major plot in the story, there were plenty of subplots which added to the climatic event and made it more significant to the reader. However, if Pride and Prejudice was a short story, there wouldn’t have been enough room to fit in the happy endings that everyone got nor to have all the characters in the same story.

It would also confuse the readers to see how quickly Elizabeth changes her mind. In a novel format, there’s plenty of time and enough circumstances to play around with.

Takeaways – Major Difference Between a Short Story and a Novel

Now, that we’ve covered the major differences above, let’s have a quick recap of what a short story and a novel have and do not have:

Short Story Novel
Smaller word count – 2,000 to 20,000 words only Larger word count – 60,000 to 120,000 words only
Should be brief enough to be finished within a few hours Can be long enough to take a few days or even weeks to finish
Writing structure contains brief segments of a three-act structure Writing structure has room for a full three-act structure to be implemented
Characters can range from 1 to a maximum of 5 in short stories Characters can range from 1 to a maximum of 40 or 50 in novels
Short stories only have one major plot and a minor twist which adds to the ending Novels can have a major plot with various subplots, twists and climatic events that build up to the ending

Recommended Short Stories for You to Read

Additionally, it is also a good idea to do some preliminary reading so that you are aware of the different styles that you can incorporate into your short stories. Most people have read novels but they don’t always choose to read short stories.

If you’re interested in doing so, the following are some of the best short stories that you can read to understand more about short story writing:

  • The Tell Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe – It’s a good idea to check out other short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. There is a reason why he’s hailed as the “Father of Short Stories” after all.
  • The Signal Man – Charles Dickens – Popular primarily for his novels, not many know that Charles Dickens also wrote short stories. This one is loved for its unique twist and setting.
  • The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde – With a writing style similar to fairy tales, this story has a very melancholy setting, similar to Hans Christian’s original, dark fables and fairy tales.
  • The Magic Shop – H.G. Wells – A short story that really makes you think about life; this tale from H.G. Wells has nothing alien about it. In fact, it’s so human, it’ll surprise you too.
  • The Body Snatcher – Robert Louis Stevenson – Much like his novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this short story gives a closer look at two industrious medical students.
  • B24 – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – While he’s known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, B24 is not just a powerful story but also reveals Sir Arthur’s skill as a writer apart from his Sherlock Holmes series.

By reading these short stories, you will not only understand more about the differences between them but will also be able to see just how much skill is needed to write a good one!