Growing a short story into a novel

Do you have a short story work-in-progress that just doesn’t want to fit into 10,000 words or 25 pages?

Is it bursting at the seams? Does it feel incomplete and frustrating to read?

Then you may have a recalcitrant short story that could be transformed into a successful novel.

A case in point

A writer client of mine, a young author who had already published a collection of short stories, came to me with a new work of about 12,000 words that was giving her a hard time.

“I can’t fold in the backstory, and every new scene seems to require more characters and relationships.”

Our editorial process became a slow march through the pages, during which we identified many spots where more explanation seemed necessary. We struggled to confine ourselves to the original tightly compressed narrative arc fraught with ambiguity and deliberate incompletion, but both of us found the next draft hard to understand and ultimately unsatisfying.

So after some major discussion to consider the goals and potential structure of the piece, we went the other way: expansion, amplification, fleshing out, going back and going forward with more story and character development. The manuscript grew and grew like Alice in Wonderland after swallowing the cake marked “eat me”, until it became a novel of 85,000 words.

Getting from short to long

Expanding an incomplete short story into a novel involves a variety of tools and techniques according to the specific needs of the original piece. Here are some suggestions and guidelines that may help you along your way.  And if you’d like to work with a developmental editor on this project, check out my advice for finding a good one.

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Guidelines For Growing a Novel from a Short Story

• Deconstruct the original draft

Take apart what you have so far, and look for the holes. Study the characters. Are they alive, three dimensional, speaking and behaving in a credible and compelling manner?

Analyze the sequence of events. How can you expand on the existing scenes so they have more meaning and power? Where can you add detail, space, and time?

• Create a new outline

It’s essential to make a plan for the structure of a book, particularly when expanding from a short story to a novel.

An outline provides an opportunity to step back and see where you can flesh out the original incomplete material with more linked events.

Each chapter gives you the opportunity to add and subtract elements, move them around, and to insert more dialogue and visual description at key points.

Remember that outlines are never carved in stone, since they’re usually polished and revised once you start writing again and the book takes on a life of its own.

• Conceptualize anew

When you create a longer work from a short story, you’re not just filling in the holes. You’re painting the picture on a larger canvas.

The rhythm of a novel is different, the pacing more ample. You have the luxury of spending extended time with the characters so we know more about their history, where they’re coming from, the deeper complexity of their motivation and actions. What was originally subconscious can leak out a bit more, without of course revealing more than you want to

What you thought had to be a brief and sketchy backstory may in fact become where the book actually begins.

Where you once had only one character you can have two or even three, each representing different aspects of the same theme but with a variety of temperaments and behaviors.

And there’s more room to write about the setting, the way things look, the colors, the smell and grit of the ashes as that train struggles over the mountain.

• Consider the composite novel

Collections of short stories may be carefully organized as a group that can also be read as chapters in an episodic sequence that portrays a common theme, with a focused group of characters in place and time.

In this way, a collection of short stories may be read as a full-length work which can be greater than its parts. I’ve worked with authors writing excellent composite novels, so I know how well it can work.

Examples of major critical successes of composite novels include Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life by Sherwood Anderson, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri and Natasha by David Bezmozgis.

• Hang on to the original

The process of converting your short story to a novel can reveal a great deal about the weaknesses and strengths of the shorter first draft. In some cases, you may be inspired to go back and revise the old story to the point where it works on its own.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what he thought at first was a false start and deleted from the opening pages of The Great Gatsby. He saved and published that story, however, calling it Absolution, which is now acknowledged as a revealing dress-rehearsal for his classic novel.

A successful short story is an elegant form of fiction that readers love and publishers respect as popular commercially. So many characters, feelings, ideas and meaningful action in such a limited economy of words! It’s like an austerity budget that results in a new abundance of creative capital. And short stories are currently enjoying even more success with the proliferation of new ways to sell them online.

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The bottom line

If your current short story draft has energy, intimacy and punch, leave it alone!

But if not, and you’ve identified some of the issues above, you may want to take the plunge and go for the long form.

What about you?

Have you wondered about converting a short story to a novel? Or assembling a collection of stories that work together in some important way?

We’d love to hear about your own experiences and ideas about this process.

16 Responses to Growing a short story into a novel

  1. BubbleCow

    Thanks for a great article. One tip I use when expanding a short story is to apply a structure (three act) to the narrative and see if this can be used as a skeleton to build a ‘bigger’ story.

  2. Michael N. Marcus

    Back in the 80s I wrote a story. It was too long to be published as a short story, and too short to be a book. In the 90s I put it online and people liked it and I was relatively happy.

    I later combined it with other stories and it became a 324-page mostly humorous memoir, “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults.” Reviews have been great. Sales total for three formats (hardcover, paperback and ebook) is now over 2,000 copies. That’s pretty amazing for a memoir written by a non-celebrity.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

  3. Guilie

    Great post, Alan. The novel I’m working on started as a short story, but when I hit 20,000 words and realized I wasn’t even halfway done telling it, I buckled in for the long haul. I wish I’d had these tips of yours back then–took me twenty-something drafts to get it to a nearly acceptable shape. Great advice here, and points I’ll certainly be looking back at every time a short story doesn’t quite satisfy. Thank you!

  4. Jill Bonnar

    This was very helpful actually. I just finished my first novel, which is a little over 150,000 words, and now I’m just trying to challenge myself with a short story from a perspective I find more difficult to agree with. My biggest concern is holding onto the reins so I don’t let it get out of control. But it’s nice to have this at hand to check myself thoroughly when I finish.

  5. Alan Rinzler

    BubbleCow,

    Using a three-act narrative arc as the skeleton for a new outline is an excellent idea for growing a short story into a novel. Thanks for sharing the good advice.

    Problem, Action, and Resolution are the building blocks of classic stories from Homer’s Ulysses to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

  6. Rosanne Dingli

    As I wait for Camera Obscura to be released by BeWrite Books next week, I ponder about my WIP. This advice is so timely. I’m going to set the whole thing aside, and take up instead a short story I wrote way back when. Its premise and characters are the ideal next step, if I want a novel a year, and I am deeply familiar with the ones in the short story, which has always haunted the backroom of my mind.

    Thanks for tipping over the barrow.

  7. Lisa Martino

    I converted a graduate course assignment into a short story, entered it into a writing contest, and won a finalist title. This gave me so much inspiration, it is now my novel-in-progress.

  8. Mary Lou McKillip

    I do write short stories of all sorts fictions, true stories of me growing up in the foothills of the great smoky mountains. You could not believe the true stories of my getting into so much mischief and so orney and still am. I have a book of fiction , harmony and True Grit about ancestors traveling from Pittsburg through apalachian mountains down the Cumberland into N.C., Tenn.Mississpi, Texas Ohio and Missouri and the story ended in Washington state with a couple who meets in college and finds they have the same ancestor they marry and go back to some of these ancestors past places. The book has humor, love and mistery and just a drama saga of traveling with God through the generations of these families. I also write potery, songs and humor dogs stories with the dog telling the stories. I have three book written. Howdy Dawg Gone It copy rights, Bravery and Massacre copy right. Southern Corn Cobb Humor. copy rights.I have been published in 5 different anthology books. One coming out in the fall about the Civil war I have a poem in this one.

  9. Kathryn Lilley

    Thank you for this post! I’m currently expanding a short story, BLOOD REMAINS, into a novel-length story. I had so many readers tell me that it should have been a novel, that I finally undertook the rewrite. I’m intrigued by your suggestion about a composite novel. I hadn’t considered that as an option, but it would be a neat way to maneuver through a complex story.

  10. Ramon James

    Thanks for an informative post. There were some times when I was struggling to write a piece of short fiction, trying to contain everything in a few thousand words, but could never round off the narrative or save my characters from ‘flatness’. I never really thought to stand back and think, “Hey, why am I trying to cut when this thing just wants to grow?”

    Reading this article has given me some confidence – I’m in the midst of attempting to ‘grow’ one of my short stories now, and it’s both frustrating and exciting. Unfortunately, I’m discovering that the short story is not a seed that will sprout and bloom on its own; it’s rather the first brick in a very large and questionably-planned building project. One in which the roof is being constructed at the same time as the foundations, where the power tools have arrived but there’s no electricity… and there’s not a safety hat in sight.

  11. Alan Rinzler

    James,

    If you can grow your short story into a novel with the same skill you display in this comment,
    there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a book worth reading.

    Planning, as you say, is key, or the building can collapse. I commend your eloquent description of the struggle and look forward to hearing about the results.

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  14. Ada Tarriff

    I am a senior woman who has been writing short stories and memoirs for a few years. I am trying to find a way to tie in all of my stories in order to create perhaps a 200-300 page book. The stories comprise of just stories, memoirs, thoughts off the top of my head, etc. Is there anyway that I can touch base with someone who might be able to help me get this going. I did start something but ran into a dead end. Need advise and help. Thank you for a response. Have not been published. Ada Tarriff

  15. Kathryn

    Are there any issues with making a novel out of your already-published short story?

  16. Alan Rinzler

    Kathryn,

    No. It’s been done frequently before by many well known writers. In some cases the original story becomes a prequel or first chapter, in others the entire story is deconstructed and expanded.

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