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7 Differences Between Short Stories and Novels

April 5, 2024
5 min read time

While both short stories and novels share the goal of engaging the reader in dynamic, thought-provoking storytelling, there are several significant differences between the two forms.

Short stories thrive on simplicity and a singular narrative arc. A novel, however, may be filled with many characters, multiple plotlines, and varying resolutions. Are both forms satisfying? Certainly! But each requires its own preparation and execution. Let’s take a closer look at seven differences between short stories and novels.

1. Length

A short story will be much shorter than a novel, but how much shorter?

A short story is typically 1,000 to 15,000 words, whereas a novel typically ranges between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Short stories are supposed to be read in one sitting, and the story usually takes place within one day. A novel may take days or weeks to finish and is set over weeks, months, or even centuries.

Photo Of Woman Reading Book; 7 Differences Between Short Stories and Novels

2. Character Count

In a short story, there is only enough time to focus on one central character, addressing one significant problem solely from that character's perspective. Characters in short stories are defined by their actions and dialogue within a constrained narrative space. Conversely, a novel can feel luxurious for a writer, as the protagonist can face multiple challenges, and there can be numerous characters.

Some novels, like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, feature multiple characters’ points of view. Other novels stretch over generations, like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A short story should be compact, while a novel may sprawl in many directions and still feel satisfying if those directions are all connected to the same thematic arc.

3. Singular vs. Multiple Storylines

Likely, a 5,000-word story will only allow your protagonist to attempt to achieve one goal or solve one main problem. There is no room for B or C stories (also called subplots). This is why short stories are popular in anthologies and literary magazines.

A novel, on the other hand, has the space to explore B, C, and even D stories if necessary. It also allows greater flexibility in structure, enabling intricate plot development, multiple narrative arcs, and in-depth exploration of characters and settings. Novels may employ various structural techniques such as flashbacks, multiple points of view, or nonlinear timelines to enrich the storytelling experience.

As previously mentioned, make sure all plot lines connect thematically, or parts of the story will start to feel unwieldy or superfluous. 

Person Holding Brown Ceramic Coffee Mug; 7 Differences Between Short Stories and Novels

4. Limited vs. Lengthy Setup

Due to the limited word count, it's crucial to begin your short story as close to the climax of the plot as possible. This approach will infuse your story with a sense of urgency, enhance pacing, and intensify tension.

In contrast, novels have the luxury of taking their time to reach the climax, sometimes delaying the introduction of the protagonist's main obstacle until several chapters in. Novels afford the reader an in-depth understanding of the protagonist, their background, and the conflict they confront.

5. Treatment of the Antagonist

Usually, we think of the antagonist in a story as a specific character, but that may not be the case in a short story. In O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, the antagonist is Della’s lack of money. She wants to get her husband a great Christmas gift that reflects her love for him, but she doesn’t have enough money despite her attempts to scrimp and save. In this case, the antagonist is more of a situation than a person.

A novel will likely have a human antagonist, if not multiple human antagonists, to torment and test the protagonist. Society, religion, family structure, or politics may also be part of the antagonistic situation, but usually, there is a character to personify that antagonist.

A couple looking at a tea pot set in 'The Gift of the Magi' (1958)

6. Conflict Resolution

Short stories may or may not have a clear resolution. Many short story writers prefer to offer a twist or surprise with the ending. Some writers prefer not to fully resolve the conflict but leave the reader wondering what may happen, like in The Birds by Daphne de Maurier.

Novels are different. Because the reader has invested so much time into a novel, it’s more satisfying to create a clear, definite resolution to the main character and their conflicts. In a murder mystery novel like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, it's crucial to reveal the identity of the killer to provide closure for the reader.

7. Themes

While both short stories and novels explore themes and subtext, the depth of exploration varies between the two formats.

Short stories often focus on a single theme or idea, clearly expressing it within a short time frame. Novels can explore multiple themes simultaneously, weaving intricate layers of meaning throughout the narrative.

While great novels may explore multiple themes, the themes usually tie together in an overarching theme. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic novel written by Harper Lee, explores courage, racism, loss of innocence, and the struggles of family life. But, the overall theme might be the coexistence of good and evil, with each minor theme playing a role in the bigger theme.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) sitting with Tom (Brock Peters) in a courthouse in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)

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Most people enjoy reading short stories and novels, but as writers, understanding the differences is crucial. While the depth of character and conflict will change with each format, it’s important to allow for enough character development in each to create empathy for your main characters so that the reader will want to go on their narrative journey from beginning to end.

A well-crafted ending should feel earned in both short stories and novels and complete the experience set up for the reader from the beginning.

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