The Difference Between Stories and Novels

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Humans are born storytellers. Shortly after learning to string sentences together, we start sharing them: “Mommy, I did this…” or “Daddy, I did that….” We are eager to hear about others’ experiences, supposedly to learn from them and avoid their mistakes, and we like basking in the glory that our own stories give us (after being mentally edited, of course).

This trait can grow into writing them down, imagining stories that never happened and filling them with people who never existed. But there is a difference between a story and a novel.

When we first start writing fiction, we almost always write stories—organic concoctions, full of rabbit trails and overstocked with characters. We blithely fill pages, stringing along adventures and dreaming of what happens next. When we are in storytelling mode, we “hang out” with the cool people of our creation in whatever sort of world we make for them, artistically doodling our way down the page.

It’s an epoch of growth, when we experiment and play with things like plot, setting, narration, and so forth. We may create fan-fiction or change the ends of movies, or we may use original (more-or-less) characters, but either way, we let our stories take us wherever they (or we) want to go. But when we’re done, we haven’t necessarily created a novel.

Because a novel is structure. It’s a business commodity, written to satisfy a certain set of expectations, and there are rules we have to examine and a market we have to consider when we are writing a novel. We can’t just ream off a certain number of words, slap on a cool cover picture, and call it good. If we have too slow a beginning, potential readers may drop the book and move on. If we have too many characters, they may get lost. And if we have enough inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, or world building, we may get on their list of “never-to-be-touched-again.”

Pouring out our story like a liquid batter works well when we’re in the storytelling phase of our writing career, or even in storyteller mode, but eventually, we have to sit back and look at what we’ve written, as an author, asking ourselves some tough questions: are there too many characters? Does the plot make sense? Is there a theme? Does the plot underscore the theme? Is the story interesting and cohesive, hanging together by a neat collection of threads, or does it get snarled and convoluted as the pages slip past?

When we have really good beta readers (or agents and editors), we can get help with this. They can spot the story’s shortcomings and help us turn it into a novel. (One of the problems many self-published stories seem to face is that no one helps turn the book into a novel. They’re sometimes good stories—the raw material is there—but it hasn’t been polished into a sound, marketable product.)

This doesn’t mean we have to follow every market trend, even in our own genre, but we need to know what makes a good, reader-friendly story. That’s why there are so many writing rules out there: tips from others, trying to explain how to turn a story into a novel. Advice on how many main characters to have, how to keep a plot from turning stale, how to keep the characters interesting, the dialogue believable, and so forth.

Lately, I’ve been trying to approach my own stories as novels, and it’s hard work. There is a lot more strategy involved than I’d thought: how many characters do I want in this book? Which ones? How do I introduce them? What pieces of information do I tell my readers, like cards placed face-up on a table, and which do I hold back in my hand? I have to look at what my readers will expect in a story—how much action, how much (if any) romance, how much description—and make strategic, businesslike decisions based on this information. All this, without losing the art and magic of creation, the fun of characters’ relationships, and the poetry of good descriptions.

Writing a story may be an art, but crafting a novel is a business, and hard work. Those who would be published should not tread this path lightly, but put each foot forward, carefully moving closer to their goal.

The tie between me and my readers are words, ultimately as tenuous and fragile as a spiderweb and just as breakable. The greatest gifts I can hope to possess are enough perseverance to keep putting words on the page and enough patience to wait until my words are the right ones, before unleashing them on the rest of the world.

 

Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. See more of her great posts on all things writing and from an authors point of view. She offers advice, insider information, and even free ebook offers.

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18 thoughts on “The Difference Between Stories and Novels”

  1. Nice post. I’ve always been wary about the multiple P.O.V nature of the novel I am writing and the multiple characters I am working on. I like to think that if my structure is perfect and the characters intertwined in such a way that the reader will not feel disoriented, things will work out fine. So fingers crossed!

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  2. Thank you for sharing the differences. One day, I hope to write more than stories. As it stands, I don’t have the ideas to turn a story into even a draft of a novel. We’ll see as I continue to write.

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  3. It’s taken eight years of my working on the same novel (with breaks on other projects) to get the first one close to looking like a novel. So hang in there! It takes time and effort, but most good stories can become good novels. They just need a lot of pruning and polishing. 🙂

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  4. Great post, although I’m not sure I agree with you in every aspect, in that I would suggest that the creation of the novel as a structure is every bit as creative as dreaming up the story in the first place. The difference between a novel and a short story is one of complexity, most novels have several intertwining plots, for example, told in a sequence of perhaps 40 or 50 scenes. Getting those scenes in an order that works, in that it opens well, sustains suspense throughout the reading, and builds up to a satisfying climax, is surely an art, not a business.

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  5. I guess this is why my short stories take me a few hours or a few days or a few weeks to write and I worked on my longer works for years(and I am still working on them.)

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  6. Reblogged this on Extra's: My Reviews & Ramblings and commented:
    “The tie between me and my readers are words, ultimately as tenuous and fragile as a spiderweb and just as breakable. The greatest gifts I can hope to possess are enough perseverance to keep putting words on the page and enough patience to wait until my words are the right ones, before unleashing them on the rest of the world.”

    Liked by 1 person

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