Q: When is a short story NOT a short story?
A: When it’s the beginning of a novel.
Simple answer. Not so simple for the writer to see sometimes. When a short story just won’t gel despite all we do, it’s time to take a hard look at it and see if what we have isn’t a novel trying to be born. Sometimes, the recipe were trying to use is unsuited to a short treatment—were trying to make tuna salad using steak and eggs with a side of hash browns. Or maybe chicken salad from spaghetti and garlic bread.
Marie Antoinette lost her head over cake, but there’s no reason you have to suffer the wrath of an angry editor’s guillotine.
FISH OR FOWL,
WE SHOULD KNOW THE DIFFERENCE
AND COOK ACCORDINGLY.
So, you ask, what is the difference?
Word count. A short story is a SHORT story. This means the concept needs to be simple. Not complex. It has to be developed and concluded with a “finished” feel within a certain range of words. If, at the end of your piece, there are unresolved questions the readers are asking about what still could happen—it’s a clue that maybe you’re handling too large a concept for a short story. Also, if you take twenty pages to tell something that should have been tellable in five,.it means you’re invested far more than a short story requires. Maybe a novel is trying to bust free of chains in your mad scientist’s lair.
HAVING A LOTTA TIME TO COVER—IS ANOTHER SIGN. You span large pieces of time by summarizing, frequent asterisk breaks, or line breaks. Usually, short stories happen with in a short span of time. If a long span of time is needed to work in events, this is another clue. Sometimes, the story being told is too ambitious for a short treatment. The way an army of zombies take over the world is a novel. A life altering moment against the backdrop of zombies taking over the world is a short story. When you have too much story, don’t cram it into a short story’s Jello mold. Bake a three-tier wedding cake. Marie Antoinette will be proud as she looks down from heaven, donut in hand.
TOO MANY PROBLEMS. Does your work require constant flipping to more than one POV (Point of View)? A short story is one character’s problem and its resolution. The resolution is the climax, end of problem. A novel has a major problem which is the central plot conflict, and numerous subplots—which are the character arcs of other characters. These secondary arcs are subplots. Subplots are the seasoning of novels, not short stories. If the main character’s plot finishes but other arcs are incomplete stories waiting to be told, then, yes, it’s another clue that what you have isn’t a short story, but maybe the first chapter of a novel or novelette.
Now, I’m not saying that what you’ve written isn’t good, even if it gets rejected for not being the order from the menu we placed. What I’m saying, is what so many editors often have to tell writers: IT DOESN”T SUIT OUR NEEDS. E-zines like ours, The Speculative Fiction Centre (specfiction.com), publishes short stories, not novels trying to be born, no matter how much promise lies in the DNA of the work.
The FIX for youR need is simple IN CONCEPT,
THOUGH DIFFICULT IN EXECUTION.
Take your “short story” and shove it ... back into your brain and keep working. Write the novel it wants to be and submit it as a novel to those markets that will give it a good home. It’s either that or ruthlessly pairing off the excess plots and characters. Amputate or expand. The scalpel is in your gloved hand—your choice. Choose wisely.