May 14 – 20: “Short story versus novel length, how do you adapt from one to the other?”

This week we discuss short story versus novel length: “How do you adapt from one to the other?”

Join ITW Members Lissa Price, D. P. Lyle, Alexandra Sokoloff, Dianna Love and Patricia Rosemoor. You won’t want to miss it!


Lissa Price’s international best-selling debut YA, STARTERS, a futuristic thriller, is Random House Children’s Books lead title. Dean Koontz called it “a smart, swift, inventive, altogether gripping story.” The LA Times said it is “Dystopian sci-fi at its best,” and “Readers who have been waiting for a worthy successor to ‘The Hunger Games’ will find it here.” She has lived in Japan, Belgium and India, but now resides in the Southern California foothills.

D. P. Lyle is the Macavity winning and Edgar nominated author of both fiction and non-fiction. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

To learn more about D. P. Lyle and his latest nonfiction book, MORE FORENSICS IN FICTION, click here.

With 90 novels and 7 million books in print, Patricia Rosemoor writes “dangerous love” – combining romance with danger in romantic and paranormal romantic thrillers, even in romantic horror. Patricia won a Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America and two Reviewers Choice and two Career Achievement Awards from RT BOOK reviews. She’s the author of The McKenna Legacy, a fan favorite paranormal romantic suspense series. SKIN is her first indie thriller.

NYT bestseller Dianna Love spent her early years creating unusual marketing projects for Fortune 500 companies. Now she writes thrillers and urban fantasy, which includes collaborating with #1 NYT bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon. Their Belador UF series debuted on the NYT, USA Today, PW and Walmart bestseller lists. THE CURSE (Book three) is available September 18, 2012. Dianna speaks at reader events and has taught the popular Break Into Fiction® program nationally and internationally.

Thriller award winner Alexandra Sokoloff’s supernatural thrillers have also been nominated for Anthony, Bram Stoker and Black Quill awards. She is a produced screenwriter and teaches a Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop, based on her internationally acclaimed workbook and blog. Alex is the author of THE HARROWING, THE PRICE, THE UNSEEN, BOOK OF SHADOWS, and THE SPACE BETWEEN, and co-author of the paranormal KEEPERS series with Heather Graham and Harley Jane Kozak.

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  1. I’m one of those odd authors who nearly always writes novels. But over the years I’ve been challenged to write a few shorter pieces. One was a 40 page Intrigue romantic suspense “novel” for the Harlequin website. I think having to tell the whole story one could find in a longer novel in mini-version trained me well.

    I later wrote three novels, each in three parts, with two other authors. One suspense story, three romances. So each 100 page novella was a complete romance and offered new information about the mystery/thriller aspect of the story. In a similar vein, I wrote the “big finish” novella of a reincarnation anthology. Again, a whole story in about 40 pages.

    Really short stories are a unique challenge, at least to me. My mindset was not to play off an incident to the max as some authors do. I wanted to tell a whole story in 20 pages just as I had in 40 or in 100 or in 300. So that’s what I did.

    I have written only two published short stories – HOT CORPSE and HOT NOTE, the story in the LOVE IS MURDER anthology, both in the world of novels HOT CASE and HOT TRICK and using the same main characters. HOT NOTE was particularly challenging, since we only had 5,000 words in which to tell our stories. My very shortest fiction venture.

    So what did it take?

    -Paring down the story to its very essence.
    -Making certain to use only vitally necessary characters.
    -Shorthanding dialogue.
    -Starting in the middle of a scene and ending it before the scene was really finished.
    -Editing, editing, editing – or perhaps I should say deleting, deleting, deleting.

    Every. Word. Had. To. Count.

  2. Every author has been asked: Where do you get your ideas?

    The short answer is: Everywhere.

    That is indeed the truth of it. Something you see or read or an overheard conversation or a couple arguing at a nearby restaurant table or an odd character you pass on the street or simply an idea that pops into your head, from wherever those thoughts are born, raises the central question: What if?

    What if this happened? What if that person did this? What if that couple was actually planning a murder? What if that briefcase contained state secrets? Or an explosive device? Or a deadly virus?

    From those two words—What if—stories arise.

    What if a good, God-fearing couple are threatened by the man that killed their only son, forcing them to plan the man’s murder and their own disappearance?

    That’s the question that drives my short story “Even Steven,” which is included in the ITW anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER.

    After the story was completed I sent it to my older sister, a retired school teacher and accomplished storyteller herself. After she finished she asked me: what happens next? My response was: what do you want to happen next? She laughed, saying she wanted to make sure that I intended for the story to have an ambiguous ending. I did.

    But then over the next few weeks I asked myself: what does happen next? The answer to that question is my next Dub Walker novel, RUN TO GROUND, which will be out this August.

    So in this case, the short story served as the seed for the novel.

  3. Writing a short story is always a challenge, but it still has a plot with a beginning, middle and end. When I brainstorm a novel, I know I need three major twist points, or turning points, in the plot, but in a 5000 word short story you may not be able to incorporate more than two. But I figure, if you get the first twist point early enough and it works – go for the third one. A romantic suspense “works” if you arc the relationship along with the suspense in that same short time frame, but a story like mine – DEADLY FIXATION – also requires extensive world building because the characters are from an Urban Fantasy series about the Beladors, a group of powerful Celtic warriors who must move undetected among humans in today’s world.

    Given all that and the absolute need to show the relationship arc, I generally start with two people who have history, but who parted ways after their last meeting with issues and unfinished business. I want to force one of them to make a choice he/she isn’t happy about early on in the short story, and by the end, I force the other to make a choice he/she wouldn’t have made in the opening. There’s not a lot of room to build a complex conflict and set up the character arcs, so their conflict needs to be easily demonstrated and strong enough to carry the story (not some short term disagreement).

    I approach a short story with a mental brainstorming list along the lines of the following:
    Who has the most to lose in the opening?
    Who has the most to lose in the ending?
    Why will we cheer for these characters?
    Who has the upper hand first and who has it second?
    Why would these be the worst two people to team up and what will force them to work together?
    What are the stakes? What will up those stakes?
    Why should each of the two characters not trust the other until the very end?
    What unexpected events will happen that will force the characters to make choices/decisions they would otherwise not make and why will they make those choices/decisions this time?
    What makes this villain so deadly? (what gives this story a universal threat)
    What is the point in the story when everything is lost?
    What heroic action will each character take at that point? What will they sacrifice to do make the right choice?

    I find writing short to be like boot camp for writing novels. Love the challenge of creating in a tiny space sometimes just for an exercise in tightening text.

  4. Like Patricia, I very rarely write short stories – for me it’s every bit as hard to come up with a great idea for a short story as it is for a novel, so why not push through and MAKE it a novel which will serve as an income stream instead of just a fun advertisement for your books that ARE income-producing?

    I know that sounds horribly practical, but this is my living, here. Writers have to be practical if we want to eat!

    But maybe I’m just a long-form writer by nature. I wrote my first short story, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, only because I was asked to contribute to an anthology I thought was a really cool idea – stories about marginalized superheroes (people of color, women), and I thought I could probably manage a dark story about a marginalized high-school girl who has to become a heroine in horrific circumstances. She’s dreaming about a terrible massacre at her school, and becomes convinced that she can stop the shooting with the help of a popular boy, her secret crush, who is having the same dream. I wrote it, loved it, and it went on to win a Thriller Award for Best Short Fiction. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the situations and it just kept nagging me that there was a lot more to it, and last year I finally just gave in to that pull and adapted the story as a VERY dark YA thriller, THE SPACE BETWEEN.

    I was right – there was a whole hell of a lot more to it, including quantum physics, parallel universes, and I’m actually now going to have to continue the whole thing as a trilogy.

    And now that I’ve written IN ATLANTIS for the LOVE IS MURDER anthology, I’m having the same thing happen – I can’t stop thinking about the characters and what happens for them next, and I know I’m going to end up expanding the story into a novel which may actually be a series.

    Now, to bring it back to HOW to write a short story… I don’t read many short stories, but the ones that I love have that great high concept premise, which usually includes a huge twist. I really think that the essence of a short story is the twist, and once you have that, you can set up the story with a basic three-act structure: You have someone who wants something very badly (The Act I setup) who is having trouble getting it (The Act II complications) and eventually DOESN’T get what they think and say want, but they get what they really need instead. (Which creates the Act III twist.)

    Next I’ll talk about how I adapted THE SPACE BETWEEN as a novel, which I think is the actual interview question, but go have some coffee and let other people talk first!

  5. So turning to the question how how to adapt a short story into a novel…

    The point I was trying to make above is that a short story is all about the premise (as a former screenwriter I’m obsessed with the idea of premise, which I’ve talked about on my story structure blog if you’re hazy on the concept:

    Because of the restriction of length, all a short story really does is take a premise and set it up (Set Up is generally just Act I of a novel or film) and then cut directly to the chase: the final battle and TWIST (as I was saying above). My short story THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN was basically that set up and then the twist. As a matter of fact, when I actually sat down to write the first draft, I used most of the story almost directly as written as the first act!

    So with a short story, you have a beginning and an end, but not much of the vast middle section that comprises a full-length novel or film. Which means to expand the story into a novel, I had to take that premise and do exactly what I always do to write a novel once I have a premise: brainstorm the key story elements and sequence and act climaxes that go into any story, like Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure, the heroine’s Desire and Plan to get it, the Into the Special World Scene, the Investigation sequence (since this is a myster/thriller), and so on. (There’s a full list on my blog).

    And as I was doing that brainstorming, just as always in the writing process, whole new levels and actions and characters of the story revealed themselves. I spent the time I usually spend on a novel to block it out on a story grid of the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure, came up with a beat-by-beat outline (which is only a roadmap, it always changes!) and when I felt I had the whole story, I started writing, and worked through my usual process of pounding out a very rough first draft, and then going back into it to do one pass after another layering in different aspects: suspense, visual and thematic imagery, character, emotion, etc.

  6. Alex makes a great point–that a short story states the premise and the set up and then jumps to the chase. I agree that most often that is the case. In RUN TO GROUND, all the elements and actions of my short story, EVEN STEVEN, are incorporated in the first act. It is spread over several chapters as I cut in action from the protagonist and other characters, but by the end of Act 1 the entire short story has been consumed. From there it was adding the chase, the twists, the complications, and the final conflict. So in this case the short story served as the premise and the set up but not the chase, etc. So a short story can evolve into an entire novel in many ways, which a good thing since it gives you many ways to use a single story concept.

  7. Good morning Patricia, DP, Dianna and Alexandra and thank you for sharing these tips. Dianna, thanks for that brainstorming list.

  8. Patricia, I write my stories with three acts, too (I’d argue that it’s not a story if there AREN’T three acts!) – but the first two acts of my short story (EDGE OF 17) are actually the first act of the novel. (THE SPACE BETWEEN). Same thing as Doug is saying above.

    Hi Carlene! Thanks for joining us.

  9. Hi Carlene – You’re welcome. I find it helps to have questions to flush out the power points of story more quickly. Thanks for coming by today.

  10. Alexandra —

    I would say my first act is the inciting incident — finding the body washed up on a Lake Michigan beach — plus the detective heroine’s grounding scene with the hero in which the reader gets their conflict and her need to investigate the crime while keeping him out of it lest someone figure out he’s half vampire. The second act is the means by which she figures out it’s a supernatural murder and the identity of the supernatural being. And the third act is the big finish in which she has to save the hero from being murdered, because of course he won’t stay out of it. I definitely could write a full length novel based on what I have…with a lot more details, of course.

    My former writing partner is a short story guru and he goes with taking an incident to it its ultimate possibilities. So we all have different ways of looking at ‘how to.’

  11. Patrica, what you spelled out is a pretty perfect template for any mystery or thriller: inciting incident in Act I that introduces the crime or mystery, an investigation in Act II that I assume leads to a revelation about who is behind it all, and an Act II final battle/confrontation and resolution.

  12. A well-structured short story is a thing of beauty. The thought of writing one both challenges and intimidates me. I taught Twain and Poe so much that I feel I have a lot to live up to in writing short.
    Dianna, love the brainstorming list and the warning that the story may not have room for the 3rd twist point if the first isn’t handled early. So often we warm up to those in a longer work.

    Alexandra, I have to confess that the lack of a well-developed middle is making the process more appealing right now. I like the “cut to the chase.” Thanks for the link on premise, too! Very helpful.

    DP, the “what-if” is my staple. However, in this case, I’m thinking of using the short story format to further develop something in a secondary character’s past that readers of The Doctor’s Mission have told me they want to hear more about. I may have to think of how also to carry his story forward with the “what-if” in mind. BTW, Alexandra, this would be a marginalized character, the Liberian native who is close to my white missionary hero. I think the short story is an excellent way to build what I can’t do in a category inspy historical.

    Patricia, having every word count is so essential. I’ve learned that in writing Chicken Soup devotionals. You have to pare, pare, pare. Now I just have to try and expand it a bit to something well above that length that tells the complete story.

    Thanks, guys. This is a timely post for me as the short story is something I wanted to tackle later this year.

  13. Patricia, You mentioned that you “shorthand” dialogue. I want to be sure I understand this process. I’m wondering if it’s less wordy characters or simply that you use action to tell as much as possible, thus minimizing the number of lines that are only one word…or only a few words.

    DP, my hubby & I play the “what if” game back & forth sometimes. What if they went home separately (because they’re angry w/ each other) and one never showed up? etc. etc. I use this method a lot when brainstorming stories.

    Dianna, I love your list of questions. It forces the author to get to know the character better & find the information that will work best to force them to do something they’d rather not do. Thanks for the suggestions…I’ll be using the list to “flesh out” the characters in my current WIP.

    Alexandria, I find it difficult to write short. It forces the character to decide quickly…and forces me to not waste words. I like the idea of breaking it into a 3-act process. That helps me a lot.

    Thanks to all of you for your contribution to the subject of writing short stories.

  14. >>>>You mentioned that you “shorthand” dialogue. I want to be sure I understand this process. I’m wondering if it’s less wordy characters or simply that you use action to tell as much as possible,

    I don’t mean replace with action. Normally the road to discovery is a longer path — i.e., a longer exchange of dialogue. What I meant is that — while still adding a few lines of dialogue that set character (and humor) — I would break a conversation down to its essence. What do we really need to know from the scene. So instead of going in several directions before heading in the one that they need, I might have them start in one direction but quickly find the one that works for them.

    If that makes sense.

    And then when I kept going over 5K words, I kept going back and seeing if there was both narration and dialogue I could tighten and still have what I needed.

  15. Debbie – What a good idea to use a short story to develop a secondary character’s past and possibly end up with extra content for your missionary series or a story to put in an anthology. I often write a story about a character’s past to really flush it out. i find the “discovery” process of writing a story reveals many things I wouldn’t have expected by just brainstorming the character’s past.

  16. Sandy – You’re welcome for the list. I know you and your cp group are good at brainstorming and will likely expand on that list. I find those types of questions get to the core of the story quickly. I’m always looking for what makes ‘this story’ different and the minute I get that I’m off and running… er, typing. Thanks for stopping by today.

  17. This was a wonderful blog. I learned so much. I’m glad to hear that the short story is alive and well. I totally agree with D.P. Lyle that inspiration can come from anywhere. Overhearing people talking at dinner is one of my favorite sources, too. I will have to get a copy of Love is Murder because it features so many of my favorite writers, Sandra Brown, Dianna Love, Sheriilyn Kenyon and Heather Graham. And I’m happy to learn about the other writers who have blogged today. I so appreciate your advice. I didn’t realize it was such a common practice for authors to write short stories to introduce their novels before publication, but that’s a great idea. Last year, I published three short stories for a small press, all about angels, all supernatural, all humorous but the three are standalone stories (A Choir of Angels, Follow an Angel and The Stand-in Bridegroom). I really enjoy the short story format and will definitely write more in addition to continuing to write novels. As a matter of fact, this year our blog authors from the Petit Fours and Hot Tamales are writing an anthology of short stories which we’ll release at the end of the year. We have been publishing group novels every year as free reads. I had to laugh about what Debbie said when I heard that part about the middle, wow, not to have to worry about the sagging middle would be great! Your blog has given me an idea of how to introduce my next novel with a short story prequel which was originally part of the book but was cut. Thanks again so much to everyone who blogged today. I can’t wait to learn more next week.

    Marilyn Baron

  18. Marilyn – You and the PFHT group are so nice to give away the anthology each year. I hear your blog mentioned when I’m speaking at events around the country. Glad you found something inspirational today – that’s great. Thanks for coming by today and good luck with that next story.

  19. Yes, the What If? game is fun to play in restaurants and almost anywhere else–but it does seem that I never think the couple is simply out for dinner or celebrating an anniversary, etc., but rather always assume they’re married—but not to each other—or are plotting a murder–maybe of one of both spouses. I suspect most crime writers do the same.

  20. People seem to be getting a lot out of the hard information, so I’m posting my Narrative Structure Cheat sheet from my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors books: (

    I find that in a short story it’s almost always Act II that is truncated, but some of the steps still apply.

    NARRATIVE STRUCTURE CHEAT SHEET, from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

    Act I:

    We meet the Hero/ine in the Ordinary World.

    S/he has:

    — a Ghost or Wound

    — a strong Desire

    — Special Skills

    And an Opponent, or several, which is standing in the way of her getting what s/he wants, and possibly wants exactly the same thing that s/he wants

    She gets a Call to Adventure: a phone call, an invitation, a look from a stranger, that invites her to change her life.

    That impulse may be blocked by a

    — Threshold Guardian

    — And/or the Opponent

    — And/or she is herself reluctant to take the journey.

    But she overcomes whatever opposition,

    — Gathers Allies and the advice of a Mentor

    — Formulates a specific PLAN to get what s/he wants

    And Crosses the Threshold Into the Special World.

    Act II:1

    The hero/ine goes after what s/he wants, following the PLAN

    The opponent blocks and attacks, following his or her own PLAN to get what s/he wants

    The hero/ine may now:

    — Gather a Team

    — Train for battle (in a love story this can be shopping or dating)

    — Investigate the situation.

    — Pass numerous Tests

    All following the Plan, to achieve the Desire.

    No matter what genre, we experience scenes that deliver on the Promise of the Premise – magic, flying, sex, mystery, horror, thrills, action.

    We also enjoy the hero/ine’s Bonding with Allies or Falling in Love

    And usually in this Act the hero/ine is Winning.

    Then at the Midpoint, there is a big Reversal, Revelation, Loss or Win that is a Game-Changer.

    Act II:2

    The hero/ine must Recover and Recalibrate from the game-changer of the Midpoint.

    And formulate a New Plan

    Neither the Hero/ine nor the Antagonist has gotten what they want, and everyone is tired and pissed.

    Therefore they Make Mistakes

    And often Cross a Moral Line

    And Lose Allies

    And the hero/ine, or if not the hero/ine, at least we, are getting the idea (if we didn’t have it before) that the hero/ine might be WRONG about what s/he wants.

    Things begin to Spiral Out of Control

    And get Darker and Darker (even if it’s funny)

    Until everything crashes in a Black Moment, or All is Lost Moment, or Visit to Death.

    And then, out of that compete despair comes a New Revelation for the hero/ine

    That leads to a New Plan for the Final Battle.

    Act III

    The Heroine Makes that last New Plan

    Possibly Gathers the Team (Allies) again

    Possibly briefly Trains again

    Then Storms the Opponent’s Castle (or basement)

    The Team (if there is one) Attacks the Opponent on his or her own turf, and all their

    — Skills are tested.

    — Subplots are resolved,

    — and secondary Opponents are defeated in a satisfying way.

    Then the Hero/ine goes in alone for the final battle with the Antagonist. Her Character Arc, everything s/he’s learned in the story, helps her win it.

    The Hero/ine has come Full Circle

    And we see the New Way of Life that s/he will live.

    I have several more expanded Story Elements checklists in the books and on my blog – too long to post here!

    1. Wow, I feel like I should be sending you a huge chunk of tuition! Thank you even more for using easy to relate language. The next time my writing group decides we’re all going to write last minute short stories for the blog with a simple “Beginning, middle, and end”, I’m not going to pass out!

  21. These are all great tips! I started out writing short fiction, but the stories kept getting longer. Now writing anything short is tough for me. Seeing how well published friends use shorts as a marketing tool, though, makes me think I need to buckle down and figure out how to do the same.

    DP, I love the “what if” game, too, though it occasionally makes my family a little nuts.

    Dianna, your focus on stakes is intriguing. These are all important questions in novel-length fiction, too. Break Into Fiction (the book) helped me pay more attention to those elements.

    Alexandra, the cheat sheet looks great. Thanks.

    Patricia, your advice on paring down will come in handy. I always need to do that at novel length. I can’t imagine how I’d avoid it in the shorter form.

  22. Alex’s book on Narrative Structure is outstanding–not just for screenwriters but also for novelists and short story writers. I highly recommend it.

  23. Alexandra, thanks for the cheat sheet. I find sometimes I get lost in the events of the story and forget the overall structure. This is a good reminder 🙂

  24. Hi all, I’m coming in late to the party due to a computer glitch, but happy to be here. When Random House bought my YA manuscript (the first in a duology), they also put in the contract three short e-stories. They had just started doing this the previous year with a handful of their biggest YA authors such as Lauren Kate and Michael Scott. The concept is to set the story in the world of your novel but it can be written from any POV.

    I was to be the first debut author they were going to try this on (don’t you love being the guinea pig?). And they were going to release the e-short before my debut. I saw two problems – one, no one would find this e-short by an unknown and two, releasing that short before your high-concept thriller meant giving away the concept early. I wanted the reader to enjoy the unfolding when they read the book.

    STARTERS is set in a future Los Angeles where desperate teens rent out their bodies to seniors so they can enjoy being young again. But one senior plans to do more than party, she plans to murder someone.

    The e-short was scheduled to go up on Valentine’s Day which meant I had to turn it in months before that. I was having a tough time trying to figure out what I could write for this. Then, I took my inspiration from my cover.

    I had early feedback from beta readers that they loved one character, Michael. Because he is an artist, I decided that I would tell it from his point of view, first person, present (the book is first person past from Callie’s pov). And the story would start with him doing the drawing that you see on the cover. He follows Callie, spying on her as she meets another guy and then goes to the body bank, where trouble ensues and in the end, you understand why he finished the drawing the way he did.

  25. Hi Nancy – I’m glad Break Into Fiction has been so helpful. BTW – so excited about your first book coming out this year. You’ve certainly taken all the things you’ve learned to heart and used them well. Thanks for stopping by.

  26. Lissa – Congratulations on those projects. Very interesting and sometimes it’s good to be the guinea pig – you may be on the leading edge of a new wave. Best of luck with all that.

  27. This is turning into quite a workshop for writers – something for everyone. When I speak to writers across the country, I always tell them there’s no one way to write a story. There are lists of best selling authors who approach creating a story, of any length, in many different ways. I enjoy that that so many writers are willing to share their process. It makes for a great community. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter what your process is as long as you’re successful in producing a story you’re proud of that connects with readers.

  28. Hi Dianna, thanks so much. It seems to be rolling out quickly. I know other YA debuts who are all being asked to write short stories set in the world of their books. Some are being paid, some aren’t, some are given away and some cost .99 on itunes. We all agree that it doesn’t make as much sense to release these until the debut author has their book out first.

  29. Lissa —
    If they’re free especially readers will glom onto them and hopefully fall in love with your world and characters and be looking for your first book. It’s a marketing ploy a lot of authors going indie use.

  30. Lissa – I agree with Patricia that the free ones are a great marketing ploy and think you’re right to release the short stories either when your book is out or even 4 weeks in advance with a promo push to get readers excited, prompting pre-orders.

  31. Patricia, hi, yes, I am *all* for giving them away for free. But my N.A. publisher wouldn’t go for that, as they had a model in place (and I understand their situation). You and Dianna make an excellent case for releasing the stories before the books. I have no way of knowing though how many readers who bought the short a month before the book was released had already read the ARC.

    BTW, for anyone reading this today who is in SoCal, I am signing tomorrow 5/19 at Costco LA (2901 Los Feliz Blvd, LA) from 1-3. Come see me so I’m not all alone with the meatball samples.

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