Does Your Idea Have Novel-Length Potential?
Sometimes, we're zapped with ideas out of nowhere. We're in the car or the shower. We're staring out the window at work or sweating it out at the gym. No matter where the ideas come from, it's always important to ask whether or not it's something we can make a book out of, or if it's simply better as a short story. If you can check a few of these items off your list, you may have a novel in your brain.
I chose to write about this today because I was thinking about a conversation I had with one of my writing buddies a few months ago. She has this idea she's been ruminating on for a few years, but it's not quite something she's figured out how to write yet. She's instead opted to write short stories in the meantime.
I, on the other hand, rarely write short stories. I find that I seldom come across an idea appropriate for a short story. But what does it mean to have a "short story idea" instead of a "book idea"?
Look at the length
I hadn't really thought about this question until a short story class I took in college. After I'd finished explaining the plot of my upcoming short story to my professor, he told me it had "novel-length potential." Now that's an interesting comment, I thought. I did manage to write my story in three-thousand words, but per my professor's recommendation, I paired it down a lot. I did not include everything from my outline because I simply did not have the room.
One year later, I wrote the novel version, but it didn't come without changes. The short story version was more abbreviated, more concise, and less detailed, but they both thematically land in the same place. What didn't change was the atmosphere, the characters, and the themes.
So, it just so happened that this story worked as both a novel and a short story, but this certainly won't be the case with every story. First, let's examine a chart from writersafterdark.com to help us identify what differentiates a short story from a novel and everything in-between.
I mention all of this because it might put your story idea into perspective. If you're a newer writer, you might not think about your story in terms of words, but now is a good time to start.
Look at your characters
My short story version had two main characters and a couple of peripheral characters; in the novel version, I added a handful of minor characters. These characters added another layer of depth to the plot and refined the main characters by serving as a point of comparison (or a foil, if you remember the term from high school English class). More characters also mean you'll also be dealing with a few more subplots.
If you've plotted out quite a few characters, chances are you'll have a more complicated plot that requires a novel-length word count. In the current book I'm writing, not only do I have a lot of characters, but I have a lot of points of view. All of these characters have made this the longest book I've written thus far. That being said, I'd say that you can only adequately develop one or two (maybe three) characters in a short story.
Look at the timeline
It's hard to write a short story that takes place over the course of months or years. As Writer's Digest wisely observes, "A short story that spans years or generations risks leaving the reader unsatisfied." Meaning, you'd have so much ground to cover and so much explaining to do (which may veer too much into telling instead of showing territory). You'd be spreading yourself a little too thin. Conversely, it's much easier to write a short story version if it takes place in only a few hours or days.
Read a little bit of each
Sometimes it's hard to determine what it is we're trying to write when we're not very familiar with one art form or another. I, for one, don't read many short stories. If I did, I'd probably understand better what the set-up looks like, how to structure it, and how to execute a proper ending. Consequently, I don't find myself having many ideas for a short story. My rampant reading of novels, however, helps me to think and brainstorm and plan like a novelist.
Still not sure?
At one point, you need to just do something, whether you're fully confident it will pan out the way you want it or not. My suggestion would be to write a short story version of your idea. It's faster or lower commitment. The moment you start to feel cramped and confined is the moment you'll realize you're actually supposed to be writing a novel.