The short story vs the novel

Back from Italy and loving the Italian weather in England. Neil’s sculptures look wonderful among the olive trees - it was very hard to leave. But now I must get down to the business of choosing illustrations for the biography and sending off endless letters and emails asking permission to use quotes and photographs. I’ve found a wonderful photo of KM in an out-of-print book which Penguin want to use for the cover, but I can’t find out who has the original.

I’m also working hard on a talk about Dorothy Wordsworth for the Gaskell Society conference, being held in Cumbria this year, and trying to finish a short story. Why are they so difficult? Why should 3,000 words give me more trouble than 30,000 words of anything else?

The problem is that you’ve got to have all the depth of back-story and characterisation that there is in a novel, without the space. The words have to work hard. KM thought the difference between a novel and a short story was the amount of time it was exposed to the creative process. ‘In the case of the short story it is possible to give orders that, unless the house is on fire – and even then, not until the front staircase is well alight – one must not be disturbed; but a novel is an affair of weeks, of months; time after time the author is forced to leave what he has written today exposed to what may happen before tomorrow. How can one measure the influence of the interruptions and distractions that come between?’

For me, the difference is also structural. A short story is like walking past a house in a dark street - I love doing that when all the lights are on and none of the curtains drawn. You can look in and see the people in the rooms, talking, doing small domestic things - glimpse odd emotional dramas, but then you walk on. All you have in a short story is that brief snapshot. In a novel, the front door would be open and you’d be able to go inside the house, wander around, price up the furniture, peer into the cupboards, have a glass of wine in the back garden, and get to know the people intimately. You’d have all the time and space in the world before the fire brigade arrived!


  1. I think the short story has more kinship with a poem than a novel. Every word has to work twice or thrice to reinforce the meaning of the whole. With a novel you have the luxury of coming back to the meaning from several different directions to reinforce points of character or action you may wish to make.

  2. As a writer too, I endorse Kath's exposition of the novel v the short story; the apposite image of the lighted window. We have all felt that feeling of kinship and withdrawal, excitement at other lives, of being drawn into their stories. We have to guess so much from that brief glimpse, and so much is implied. Are we more engaged because this is also our work of imagination? I guess that is what gives the short story some of its impact and emotional charge.

  3. Hi Kate thanks for leaving such a supportive comment on my blog. What a beautiful image to describe the difference between a short story and a novel. Getting to know the characters intimately in crafting a novel is that sensuous. I find it a real wrench when I have to let them go, almost like losing a friend.
    Envious about the trip to Italy, and the weather. We are having, what seems to us, very cold winter weather here.

  4. I have just finished reading and posting on some short fiction. How appropriate to then stumble upon your blog! I've been thinking about the differences and difficulties of short stories vs novels. I'm glad to have read your insightful post.


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