Why Short Stories Make Great Novels

You may have read my subject line and been perplexed. You may have said: “Huh? What do you mean by that?” But please, hear me out.

Over the years, there have been novels that were composed of short stories. Elizabeth Strout wrote Olive Kittredge, for instance and won the Pulitzer.

James Michner composed Tales of the South Pacific and not only did he win the Pulitzer for it, it also got made into a famous Broadway play and later a movie, South Pacific.

And while I wouldn’t call Interpreter of Maladies a novel, it was a collection of stories that only intersected somewhat, Jhumpa Lahiri also won the Pulitzer for them.

I was reading FRIGG magazine this morning, the issue just came out today btw, and there was a five story entry by Vallie Lynn Watson. I enjoyed the works because they fit together, they made some sense of a woman’s life and did it all while staying in the bounds of the short story form (and mostly flash fiction at that.)

And while I wouldn’t call this particular collection of shorts a novel, I absolutely ADORE Paul Theroux’s Twenty-Two Stories entry (again, flash fiction length) in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories from 2009. I’m most enamoured of Fritz is Back, the very first story in that collection.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for such a long while, I wanted to put down some of my thoughts here. I think the short story form is so flexible, and today’s readers have shorter attention spans, the short story based novel could be a great marriage.

The short story form gives the writer a chance to turn a subject this way and that, and to show pieces of things, which makes the reader do a bit more of the work in their minds stitching everything together. I think about how Olive Kittredge is not the main character in all of the Strout stories, but we see glimpses of her, which arouses our curiosity more. I liked the idea behind that book.

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this is because everyone on the blogs is talking about NaNoWriMo incessantly, since the kickoff is next week. And while I’m not a novelist, I may eventually decide to take the plunge on the novel form, but if I do – I think it may have to be a collection of short stories. It certainly won’t be this year.

As a side note on NaNoWriMo, I give anyone who is undertaking the task this year – or any year for that matter – a LOT of credit. It’s daunting to me.

For me the idea of writing a short story that’s more than 10 pages gives me the cold sweats. Most of my work is flash fiction or just over/under that range. Part of me speculates that as I continue writing stories that my work will naturally get longer. I have no idea if that is true, but I have noticed that when I have a flash fiction piece that gets good rejection notes from editors and Ido my re-writes, it usually turns into a story that is beyond the 1000 word limitations of flash fiction.

If you are a short story writer, what length are your stories? I imagine, with no facts to back me up, that longer stories are probably much harder to publish. So for those that write the long-ish short stories of the 20+ page variety, do you find it is much harder to place them?

What else do you think about collections of short stories that form novels?


8 Responses

  1. You are definitely right about readers having shorter attention spans, but as far as I know, is it not notoriously difficult to get short story anthologies published in the mainstream? Do you have any thoughts on why this could be?

    I really like what you said about the short story form that forces people to stitch together meaning in their mind…I absolutely agree and that to me is one of the most appealing things about short stories. I’m not sure I could name a novel that mimics short story in formation…I think the two are very much separable mediums and should stay separate as they have different things to offer.

    My short stories are generally between 1000-5000 words long; I believe if I were ever to make it longer than say 10 000 words I would cease calling it a short story and begin to fashion it as a novel. But that’s just me! Sorry to blab. Just a very thought-provoking post, that’s all!

    • Hi Louise, thanks for dropping in. 🙂

      Yes, you’re right about how tough it is to get short story collections published. What’s interesting though, I wonder if Strout had an easier time of it because the stories were fashioned into a novel. Maybe that makes it “easier” to sell conceptually.

      That’s a fascinating idea – a novel that is written more like a short story. I can’t think of any novels that come to mind either.

      And yep, that 1000-5000 word range is generally what I see in my reader role, and I haven’t written a 5000 word story yet myself.

      Lahiri’s stories from Interpreter of Maladies were 25-30 pages, so they definitely went past 10,000 words, but they weren’t fashioned as pieces to be published by journals, they were always intended as parts of a book.

      I’m thinking the older, traditional journals that publish short stories are probably of the longer variety. But I don’t necessarily think a “literary” short story has to be a certain length. I haven’t studied the length of stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review or similar journals to be able to report on what they do, so it’s a guess on my part.

  2. This is a great post subject. For years when writing short stories, I’ve hovered between 3 – 4,000 words and had to work to squeeze that out. I’ve always felt stingy when I look at other short story writers whose work seems to be in the 5 – 10,000 word range. Maybe that’s why I love flash fiction! 😉
    But lately, as I’ve written more and more commercial fiction, I find it hard to keep it under 10,000 words, even creeping up to 15,000 on one. I’m still trying to figure that anomaly out, but think it may have something to do with the “real” me vs. feeling more free when I’m writing as someone else? Hmmm…
    Veering slightly in a different direction, your previous state of the short story post led me to do some research on some of my favorites, and in addition to “Stand by Me” by Stephen King, one of my all-time favorite writers, Phillip K. Dick, wrote tons of short stories (again, when that form was greedily consumed through many sci-fi and horror magazines) that have been made into films; including Screamers, Paycheck, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and Total Recall. Total Recall was originally called “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale”, and came in at a little over 8,100 words.
    As a final comment on short stories vs. novels; PKD also was a successful novelist. Probably his most famous and loved film adaptation came from the over 61,000 word novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which is known to film lovers as “Blade Runner”. Short story writers and novelists are not mutually exclusive. However you choose to express your ideas is valid – and finding that one that turns into a novel may still be out there. Or not. And that’s fine too. 😉

    • Yes, what you say above is so true, thanks so much for that comment. Even a very short story can be made into a movie. I don’t remember how long The Body was, it got made into Stand by Me. And Mary Gaitskill wrote a 6 page short story that was turned into an indie movie called Secretary. The funny thing about that movie was it didn’t resemble the story even a little bit. I always found that odd that the movie says it’s based on Gaitskill’s work, but it’s more like it was the story that inspired a screen writer to go off and create something totally different.

      In any case… I agree, short story writers, novelists, and screen writers for that matter, are not mutually exclusive.

  3. Interesting post.

    I’m embarking on a short-story writing project based upon the proposition that novels make great short stories. Not good novels, of course, but novels that contain a great deal of chaff and a little high-quality grain. I have a stack of paperback novels like this and I plan to convert each one of them, mutatis mutatis, into a classy short story of 500 words or less.

    • I just have to ask the “dumb question” here … why would you do that?

      I’ll add, for whatever it’s worth, that any book can be condensed down to a more concise form (isn’t that what Cliff Notes does?)

  4. Here, in the UK, short stories get matching shrift and there are few print outlets. BBC radio though commissions an enormous number, from both the well and the unknown. The standard slot is 15 minutes, which after the topping and tailing for announcements between shows means that the length is around 2,000 words. Any more and the dialogue (often read by the same reader) gets mashed.

    • Thanks for stopping by Samuel, I really enjoy your blog.

      There was an NPR (National Public Radio here in the U.S.) sponsored short story contest earlier this year for short story writers called the Three Minute Fiction Contest. I believe the word count limit was 600 words, and this year the “theme” was a character comes to town and a character leaves town. I believe the winner will be announced in November. This year is the first time I’d heard about the contest, and I heard about it 3 days before it closed so although I submitted, I can pretty much tell you now I’m not the winner. LOL (I think they get about 5000 entries each year!)

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