May 7 – 13: “What’s the main difference when writing a short story as opposed to a novel?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Short stories and anthologies are becoming popular again! This week we’re asking ITW Members Judy Penz Sheluk, Mitch Silver, Barb Goffman, J.H. Bográn and Andrew Bourelle besides the length, what’s the main difference when writing a short story as opposed to a novel? You won’t want to “short” yourself by missing this, so scroll down to the “comments” section and follow along!


Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries (THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE and A HOLE IN ONE) and The Marketville Mysteries (SKELETONS IN THE ATTIC). Her short crime fiction appears is several collections. In addition to ITW, Judy is member of Sisters in Crime, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors as the Regional Representative for Toronto/Southern Ontario.


Mitch Silver was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. He attended Yale (B.A. in History) and Harvard Law School (“I lasted three days. I know the law through Wednesday, but after that…”). He was an advertising writer for several of the big New York agencies, living in Paris for a year with his wife, Ellen Highsmith Silver, while he was European Creative Director on the Colgate-Palmolive account. A previously published novelist (In Secret Service —S&S/Touchstone), Mitch and his wife Ellen live in Greenwich, Connecticut and have two children: Sloane is a nurse at Wake Forest Medical Center and Perry is an actor and the drummer for Sky Pony, a band in New York. Mitch also won the American Song Festival Lyric Grand Prize for “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” His blood type is O positive.


Barb Goffman loves writing short stories, some funny, others heartfelt. She’s won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories and has been named a finalist twenty times for national crime-writing awards, including the Anthony and Derringer. Her newest story, “Till Murder Do Us Part,” appears in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies, and her next story will be in this fall’s Bouchercon anthology. Barb works as a freelance editor and proofreader.


J. H. Bográn, is a bilingual author of novels, short stories, and screenplays. In addition, he contributes columns for several notable publications, including Yale Global, The Big Thrill, and TopShelf Magazine. He works at Habitat for Humanity Honduras, and as a part-time college professor of Writing, Spanish, and English as a foreign language. Follow him on Twitter (@jhbogran).


Andrew Bourelle is the author of Heavy Metal, published in 2017, and coauthor with James Patterson of Texas Ranger, forthcoming in 2018. His short stories are widely published and have been selected twice for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories.




  1. I was going to answer this question conventionally, going on about sketching in versus fleshing out characters, blah, blah. But I attended a discussion of “A Streetcar Named Desire” yesterday and the question arose, “Could Tennessee Williams have written this play as a novel?” The moderator replied, “Yes, but we wouldn’t be talking about it.” It made me think about the kind of stories that demand to be written in a short form like a story or play, and those that require more room. More air.

    The beauty of Streetcar is how, like a spinal column with a ruptured disc or two, everything in the story rubs bone on bone. The play begins with a bang: Stanley throws a package of bloody butcher’s meat to his wife Stella, while her visiting sister Blanche must cover the bare bulb in the bedroom with a Japanese shade: direct, piercing carnality versus papered-over desire that’s no less carnal in its own way. And bang, bang, bang, every scene after that breathlessly reveals more and more about these three people who are chained to each other.

    As for thrillers, I think they’re the toughest kind of short story to write. You have to give the reader not just who the characters are and what they want, but what’s at stake, at risk for them. And why it should be so. The fact that Hemingway could do all that in the eleven pages of The Killers blows my mind.

    1. “As for thrillers, I think they’re the toughest kind of short story to write.” Agree. That’s why I’ve dipped a toe into other genres, from SF, to portal fantasy, to a weird one about a man falling in love with a woman suffering multiple personality disorder. Called it “Love me two time” obviously. 🙂

    2. Hi Mitch. I really how you put this. I do think that thrillers are hard to write because, in addition to everything you said, you also have to get the reader to care about the character. After all, there is no thrill if no one cares if the hero (or whoever) lives or dies. Best. TG.

  2. I often tell novelists who are trying to write their first short story that they need to focus. Short stories are about one thing. One tight tale. You don’t want subplots. You don’t need romance–unless that’s a key part of the story. You start the story as late into the tale as possible and end as early as possible. You look at all your characters and see if any of then could do double-duty. If one character could do what three now are doing, merge them. Overall, the key is to focus tightly on the specific story you want to tell. No meandering.

    So if you want to include subplots or you want to have multiple plots that ultimately wind together, then it sounds like you’ve got a novel on your hands. If your story is quite complicated and can’t be told in a short space, you have a novel. Or maybe a novella. If you like to write long, with a ton of description, maybe you’re better suited for a novel. (When I write description, I lean toward less rather than more, providing one or two telling details and letting the reader fill in the rest; that approach is well-suited to short stories.)

    Ultimately, if you want to write a short story, you need to drill down and focus. Keep reminding yourself that a short story is about just one thing.

  3. I find short stories incredibly difficult to write (well). There’s no meandering to get to the point, and you really have to limit the number of characters (I love lots of characters in my novels). And yeah, sub-plots and detailed descriptions are a no-no.
    When I write novels, I am a complete pantser, beyond having a basic premise. Usually don’t know whodunit until near the end of writing (at which point I have to go back and layer in clues). With short story, I have to have to know my beginning and end — the middle may still be “pants-y” — because there just isn’t the luxury of length and time to develop the story.

    1. Hi Judy,
      You mentioned you’re more of a pantser with novels and a plotter with short stories. I find myself being the opposite. When I start a story, I usually let myself follow the narrative where it wants to go. With a novel, I want a little more structure to guide my way. Not necessarily a lot, but at least a rough outline of where I’m headed.
      Having said that, I always give myself permission to change my mind during the writing process. With stories, I often start with a vague ending in mind only to find myself changing things drastically by the end. And with novels, I find that plotting can be helpful, but you can’t let that constrain you. If the writing is taking you in a new direction, I think you have to follow.

  4. As a writer of both short stories and novels, I don’t really have a problem switching.
    In the early days of my learning to write journey, I had a teacher who claimed that, up to a certain point, a novel is nothing more than a string of related short stories, we call them “Chapters.” 🙂
    While I don´t fully agree with that sentiment, it speaks volumes about how a short story must have a start, a middle and a resolution. Except they are all short.
    Also, Gabriel Garcia Marquez described short stories as being a slice of life, set in a specific time, and not the whole life story.
    I guess that, following that ´slice´ analogy we can get a picture of an entire pizza just by looking at a slice, as long as the slice has all the toppings, and it´s not one of those mixed ones.
    So, a short story is a slice of a bigger life, is your piece representative of the full? That´s the question.

    1. J H, the “slice of life” short stories often end up being so-called “literary” stories that don’t have a plot. That won’t fly with mystery/crime stories. And the idea that each chapter in a novel is like a short story … well, that pisses me off. Chapters do not all have beginnings, middles, and ends. They tell a small part of a continuing story, not a full story, and as such they are not short stories. That sentiment about chapters gives short shrift to the short story. Your teacher’s lesson was a bad one. (Sorry, I’m all riled up about something else, and it’s coming out here.)

      1. Hey Barb,No worries. Always enjoy a good argument with a smart woman.

        Perhaps I should have added the teacher’s intention was to cheer up a student who couldn´t see how to come from short story to write novels.

        What motivates some, pisses other off.

        To be honest, I expected a stronger reaction to the pizza analogy though…:-)

  5. You can tell that you are all short story writers by the amount of clear information in your short comments.
    Judy, I am also a pantser, as characters make their own decisions all too often with me.
    Hey, Mitch, Congratulations on your songwriting award! I am looking at my own American Song Festival Award, but mine was only a Certificate of Merit.(Enough to turn my sister green with envy,thoughm since that was my one and only time entering. She entered a number of years and nada.) And my blood type is O positive.LOL!
    Barb, I think most writers tend to over-describe, don’t you?

    1. I don’t know if “most” writers over-describe, Tonette, but some do, at least to my taste. Too much description is something that has prompted me not to read more from certain authors. Thankfully, there are so many books out there that I don’t have a problem filling me reading time.

  6. RWAustralia runs a romantic short story contest each year with the theme of a particular gem. eg this year it was Jade, last year Onyx. I’ve managed it for 12 years and read a lot of the entries as they come in although I’m not a judge. Sometimes newbie writers enter and it’s obvious that they think a short story is an easy way to start off their writing career. It’s not. Often they’ll try to tell a whole book’s worth of story in 3000 words. The best one’s drill down to a core idea and focus there.

  7. I often see my own stories as single scenes, or a handful of scenes, that might have fit into a larger novel, only the rest of the novel isn’t necessary. It’s not that I think a novel is made up of a series of short stories called chapters (as Barb and J.H. were discussing above). To me, a short story must stand alone. Chapters usually don’t stand alone—you need the context of the other chapters before and after. But a short story can imply a larger backstory or bigger context without putting it all on the page.

    An example from my own work is my story “Cowboy Justice,” which appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. When I wrote it, I sort of thought to myself that I was going to write the climax to a book without actually writing the rest of the book. I gave enough background so the narrative could stand on its own, but I focused on the action of the climax, not the narrative leading up to it. My wife once asked me, “Why don’t you expand that into a novel?” She is right in that it probably would make a good novel. The problem is I already wrote the climax, which I see as the most fun part to write. It’s hard for me to see myself going back and writing the scenes that preceded the climax. It’s like eating your dessert first and then going back and forcing yourself to eat the meal. Why bother.

    Sort of the opposite happened with my novel Heavy Metal. It started as a short story. I didn’t initially picture it as a novel. I wrote about two teenage brothers stealing their dad’s pistol and going out looking for trouble. The events of the night unfold and stand alone as a short story. It wasn’t until after the story was published that I thought about expanding it into a novel. I liked the characters and thought there was probably more to their story, so I picked up where the story left off. In the published novel, the original short story is more or less the first chapter. I guess this is a case where the chapter works as a story, but none of the chapters that follow stand alone in the same way. They all build off what happened at the beginning.

    I do think that writing stories is good preparation for writing a novel. You learn how to focus on a scene and put the character in a particular moment. A novel just consists of a lot more of those scenes—scenes that by themselves can’t tell a whole story but, when put together, tell larger, more complex story than any single scene could.

    1. After I posted my message, I started thinking about Dennis Lehane’s fantastic story “Animal Rescue,” which he later expanded into the novel The Drop, as well as the screenplay for the movie The Drop (with Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and James Gandolfini). Essentially, Lehane has written three versions of the same narrative: short story, novel, screenplay. For my money, the original short story is the best. It’s a handful of scenes but is full of great character development, dramatic tension, and enough plot to have some twists. There’s just enough backstory to give us everything we need. By comparison, the movie and the book both felt padded to me. (I recognize I might feel this way because I read the story first, but still.…) I think “Animal Rescue” is a great example of a short story being the right size for the tale being told. All of the extra “novel stuff” he added for other versions was unnecessary, in my opinion.

      You can find “Animal Rescue” in Boston Noir or The Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

      1. Interesting observation. I read the story years ago. Now I want to read it again and compare it to the novel and movie, which I haven’t yet read or seen. This reminds me that the film Brokeback Mountain was originally a short story. I haven’t read the story. I’m going to put it on my to-do list.

        1. “Brokeback Mountain” is interesting because it’s practically the whole movie packed into a story. Some writers can do that—write a short story that spans years, even decades. Not me. The closest I’ve ever come is telling a story that spanned a few months.

          1. Oh, I agree. I think the longest time span in my short story is 2 weeks, and I do a time lapse only because some time had to pass due to traveling that was too boring to be included in the story!

  8. Short story length covers a wide range from the ‘one sentence’ pieces up to what? Under 40K? For a while my local paper ran a weekly microstory column–under 400 words. I had 2 published but they were both tiny snapshots. One, a memory inspired by a book bought at City Lights Bookshop in San Fran, the other a breakup scene where the dumpee narrator wishes the man would get on with it, and watches a couple taking a photo outside the window of the restaurant instead of listening.

    Neither had the capacity to turn into very much longer stories but being forced to write short really tightened my writing. It’s a good exercise!

  9. Given the topic we’re discussing, I wonder if we could all give some recommendations of short stories and/or anthologies that we recommend for readers to check out.

    What are your favorite thriller stories and where can readers find them?

    1. I mentioned Dennis Lehane’s “Animal Rescue” above, but one of my favorite thriller stories is Lehane’s “Until Gwen.”

      It’s one of those rare stories where the second-person POV is used well. It’s a nice fast-paced noir story that hooks you from the beginning and contains great characters.

      It was reprinted in both The Best American Mystery Stories and Best American Short Stories (and probably other anthologies too), but it was originally published in The Atlantic. And, oh, look at this, here is a URL with the full story!

  10. I’ll take a shot at Andrew’s challenge. I’d start with Graham Greene. He wrote short stories, novels, and pretty much everything else. His self-described “entertainments” are some of the best thriller writing in English, whether in long form or short. Example: “The Basement Room”.
    This was made into a great film starring Ralph Richardson, “The Fallen Idol”, and concerns a seven-year-old boy, Philip Lane, whose wealthy parents hie themselves off on a holiday and leave Philip in the care of Baines, the kind but self-aggrandizing family butler, and his wife, the frosty housekeeper. There’s a death, a police inspection, and a coverup, all sorts of adult goings-on seen through Philip’s immature eyes.
    Greene’s short stories can be found in several collections.
    And then there are his noir novellas from the 30s, like “The Confidential Agent”. Don’t get me started.

  11. Good topic. And of special interest, since I’m transitioning from ss’s to my first novel.

    I finished my MFA recently and yeah, our focus was on the SS. So I have some great chapters, but expanding into the longer cohesive story…that’s what I’m working on.

    1. Congrats on completing your MFA, Lisa.

      When I first tried to tackle a novel after writing a bunch of short stories, it was a strange transition. For me, the biggest challenge was sticking with it and having the confidence that all the time I was putting into it would amount to something. With short stories, there’s more immediate satisfaction. You either like what you’ve written or you don’t. And if you don’t, you can just move on and start a new story. You haven’t wasted too much time. A novel is a bigger commitment, so it takes a certain amount of blind confidence to keep moving forward.

      Best of luck in all your writing endeavors!

  12. Good topic. And of special interest, since I’m transitioning from ss’s to my first novel.

    I finished my MFA recently and yeah, our focus was on the SS. So I have some great scenes if u will, but expanding into the longer cohesive story…that’s what I’m working on.

  13. Here’s something that surprised me when I wrote my first novel, In Secret Service. I, too, was used to writing short things that got a quick thumbs up/thumbs down. If I opened my desk drawer, I could see a half-dozen novels worth of completed pages. No problem putting another 300, in one LONG story, in there, right?
    And yet I found that, around page 200, the weight of all those characters and situations in my book, and the fact that I couldn’t move on to another project yet, well, it started getting to me physically. Like I was carrying that universe of the characters I created and the historical ones I was using…the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Churchill, the whole 1930s crew…aropund in my head all day, and they were getting heavy. I wasn’t ready for that.

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