I’m thinking of doing a series of short stories about the same characters, along the lines of, for instance, Sherlock Holmes. What differences would you see in this as opposed to, say, a novel about these characters?
Thank you,Dave L
Hey Dave, great to hear from you again!
From a purely storytelling perspective, the main difference is that you need each short story to be more self-contained than, say, chapters in a novel. Each short story needs a conflict that can be introduced, built up, and resolved in just a few thousand words. While that’s also true with sections of a novel, because stories are fractal, short stories need to be weighted more toward resolving immediate problems. Any continuous plot needs to be far in the background.
For example: In a novel, you might have one scene where the immediate conflict is escaping a burning town, while the overarching plot is to defeat an evil pyromancer who set the fire in the first place. If you plot a short story that way, readers will be frustrated because it feels like the ending doesn’t actually resolve the most important conflict. “Why isn’t this chapter one of a novel?” they’ll ask.
Instead, you might have a short story about saving the residents of a burning town, then another short story about defeating a fire elemental, until the final story where the character discovers a single pyromancer has been behind everything the whole time. We have a few more posts that can help with this:
- Five Important Ways Episodic Stories Are Different
- Podcast: Episodic Prose Stories
- How to Write a Travel Story
However, there’s another major wrinkle to consider: how will this story be published? While novels and even novellas are typically published in a way that makes it easy to tell which you should read first, that’s not the case for short stories. Most paying outlets will publish your story in a weekly or monthly magazine, and readers could very easily read one without knowing the others exist.
In that situation, you not only need a plot that can be resolved in a few thousand words, you also need stories that can be read in any order. If readers need the first story to understand who the protagonist is, then they’ll be completely lost if they only happen to see the third story. This is why writing a series of short stories is so hard, and not something I’ve seen many authors actually do.
Of course, you could circumvent this by publishing the stories yourself. Then you could make sure the story order is clear and that each one is readily available. But you’d need your own platform to do that, and you wouldn’t get paid up front, so it’s a tradeoff.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on How Is a Short Story Series Different Than a Novel?
It seems like the horror genre would be well suited to the episodic novel format. I would imagine that each chapter, the protagonist would have to deal with a different monster like in a season of Buffy.
That idea comes with the problem of ‘monster of the week,’ though. Yet, I agree and I have something similar planned. An emotional arc can run through all stories in such a book, but each must be contained when it comes to the external plot.
As someone who self-publishes and is just writing a set of short stories (and has written both novels and novellas before), I have a few cents to add here.
Yes, it plays a role how you plan to publish. I will gather my short stories in one book for sale, so the order in which to read them will be clear. I copied that ‘set of stories’ idea from “The Botherhood of the Seven Kings” where the episodic stories escalate and the threat rises throughout.
If you aim for something like the Sherlock Holmes canon, it’s different. Apart from a few (“The Final Problem”/”The Empty House” come to mind), the stories can be read in any order, it doesn’t matter which ones you start with. While the novel “A Study in Scarlet” certainly is an origin story of sorts (showing how Holmes and Watson meet), everything else is rather flexible, apart from the stories mentioned above which deal with Holmes’ death and resurrection.
Keep in mind that short stories can be quite a bit longer than you think and that you can do a lot with 10,000 or more words. Still, it pays to keep to one plot and work on that (one external and one internal, if they combine, are okay, too).
Don’t use too many characters per story (though side characters don’t have to be recurring), because you won’t have the space to introduce them all and you don’t really want to re-introduce ten people for every story, especially if they’re not published in one collection or clear reading order.
Make sure each story has a proper ending, even if you want to escalate. Cliffhangers are good for novels or within a novella, but don’t do that at the end of a short story.
My stories actually have an internal plot running through all six, but each of them has one external plot which is completely closed by the end. Colin develops as he grows into his new job, but all cases he takes on are finished.
It could also help to make each story about a different character, to not being mistaken for an “episodic novel” (or as we call it in Spain “folletin”). Luckylly the shorter the story the more nebulous could be the details, as a micro tale of 100 words don’t need the same worldbuilding and background than a 100,000 words novel (in fact writting micro tales is a great exercise of conciseness).
Thank you for this answer
I think I will go the self-publishing route
If you want to go for self-publishing, look into Draft to Digital (D2D). One account and you can publish to a lot of different platforms (including iTunes, Barns & Nobles, and Amazon). I use it for all except for Amazon, because I started there right away and already have my account there.
Great article about a short story series compared to novels! There is a step between these forms, however. Two examples come to mind: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. In these books, each chapter could stand as an independent short story, yet taken as a whole, the individual narratives weave into coherent novels. Both books are worth a good read.