Writing Long and Short

Derringer Award winning author Earl Staggs has seen many of his short stories appear in magazines and anthologies. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine and as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

His novel MEMORY OF A MURDER featuring Adam Kingston is available at most bookstores or online at www.cmptp.com, Amazon and B&N.

For a signed copy of MEMORY OF A MURDER or for a free copy of the first Chapter, write him at earlstaggs@sbcglobal.net.

“What’s the difference between writing novels and short stories?”

“One’s bigger than the other.”

I don’t mean a novel is bigger only in number of pages. The story is bigger. There are more characters, more depth in the development of those characters, more plot twists and complications, and there are usually sub-plots. The emphasis is as much on the characters and how the plot impacts their lives as it is on the plot itself, sometimes more so.

To illustrate this, let’s take a simple plot and outline it first as a novel. Then we’ll come back and use the same plot as a short story.

Here’s the simple plot: Betty Brown, a wife and mother, is murdered in her home. There are no signs of robbery, no DNA evidence or fingerprints in the house other than family members, leaving no obvious motive or suspects. Homicide Detective Todd Taylor is assigned to the case.

Bill Brown, the victim’s husband, automatically becomes the primary suspect. During his investigation, Todd learns Bill and Betty had marital problems, and Betty was having an affair with a neighbor, Steve Smith. Todd now has two more suspects to investigate. Perhaps Betty wanted to end the affair, Steve objected, and in a fit of rage, killed her. Steve’s wife, Sandy, may have found out about the affair and killed Betty.

Bill and Betty’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Brittany, left home because of the tension between her parents. Todd feels Brittany has crucial information about the murder and finds her living with a rough gang, drinking, and on the way to ruining her life.

In Todd’s personal life, his wife talks about leaving him, and his ten-year-old son barely speaks to him at all. Both claim he spends too much time being a cop.

Now we have a cast of characters, Betty’s murder as the primary plot with three viable suspects, sub-plots involving the runaway daughter, the extramarital affair as well as Todd’s problems at home.

How does it all work out? With information provided by Brittany, Todd proves Bill Brown killed his wife Betty when he found out about the affair, resolving the main plot. But what about those sub-plots? Todd helps Brittany get her life back on track. Steve and Sandy Smith divorce. After revealing looks into the failed marriages of the Browns and the Smiths, Todd takes a hard look at his own and resolves to work harder at it. He’s also seen, with Brittany, how children get on the wrong path without proper role models at home, and commits to being a better father. The sub-plots have provided a character arc for Todd.

To develop the same plot as a short story, only the main character (Todd) will have any depth and the plot is less complex. In a short story, while there can be exceptions, there is usually one event requiring resolution (the crime), the path toward that resolution (the investigation), and the resolution itself (the solution).

We’ll toss out the sub-plots involving Steve and Sandy Smith and Brittany except to say Betty was having an affair with a neighbor. The only sub-plot we’ll keep is that Todd’s wife nags him about spending so much time at work.

In our short story, Todd proves Bill Brown killed his wife because of the affair. He also comes to terms with his own marital problems and promises to be a better husband.

So there we have the same plot developed as both a novel and a short story. Same killer, same victim, same resolution. The difference is. . .

. . .one’s bigger than the other.

Earl Staggs

11 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Earl Darlin’! Good Morning! Great blog. As usual, in a manner all your own, you’ve written yet another terrific piece. Whether you’re writing here for the very cool Stiletto Gang, or one of your lovely short stories, or a wonderful novel like MEMORY OF A MURDER, I love hearing what you have to say, and admire the way you say it.


  2. Helen Ginger
    Helen Ginger says:

    Great explanation of the difference between the novel and the short story, Earl. Clear and concise!

  3. Earl Staggs
    Earl Staggs says:

    Thanks a ton, Kaye Darlin’, for stopping by and saying such nice things. You sure know how to make an old hack feel good. You get a big hug for that.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Nice going, Earl. You make it sound so simple. In Helen Ginger’s words — clear and concise. It’s a keeper.

    Pat Browning

  5. Earl Staggs
    Earl Staggs says:

    Hi, Helen. I responded to your note yesterday, but somehow it disappeared. Anyhow, thanks for the kind words. It’s usually easier to explain how to write something than to actually write it. Oh, well, no one promised us writing would be easy, did they? Best regards and thanks for dropping by.

  6. Earl Staggs
    Earl Staggs says:

    Hey, Pat! Glad you stopped by and thanks for the compliment. Have a great day, and if you have any rain up there, slide it down the Chisholm Trail to Fort Worth, will you? We need it bad.

  7. Lonnie Cruse
    Lonnie Cruse says:

    Love your explanation, Earl, but then you ARE the king of short stories! Love how you look in the stilettos too. Hugs, L

  8. Earl Staggs
    Earl Staggs says:

    I’m glad you like the new look, Lonnie. Wearing heels is not really comfortable, but what price beauty, right? Some of the guys around here are taunting me, but I think they’re just jealous because I have better looking legs.

  9. Jan Verhoeff
    Jan Verhoeff says:

    Earl, I just came by to check out your legs. I must have been late. Lonnie says you look great in stilettos, though, so I suppose I’ll have to take her word for it. Unless of course, you’ll be modeling again?

    I really did get a lot out of your explanation of short story v. long novel. In all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve never broken my plots down to such a concise and poignant description. Hummm, I may have learned a new trick.


  10. Earl Staggs
    Earl Staggs says:

    I’m glad you liked the trick, Jan. We never stop learning new ones in writing, do we? If I ever stop learning, I think it’ll be time to quit.

    And about the legs, I’ll be sure and let you know when they’re on display again. 😉

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Trust Earl Staggs to explain a complicated subject in a way everyone can understand. Thanks, Earl.


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