Is a novel just a series of short stories?
June 4, 2016
How do you turn a short story into a novel?
The way I posed the question is really backwards. The task before the novelist is not how to turn a short story into a novel, but rather how to turn a novel into a series of short stories.
If you haven’t thought about novels as short stories placed end to end, you may be missing a trick. The late Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and other great novels, said he never wrote a novel, just collections of short stories.
If you compare the structure of the two forms, novels and short stories, you will see how they parallel each other. Each has a beginning, a middle and an ending. Each starts with a conflict that needs resolution, and then sets out to resolve it.
Let’s think about one of the most famous short stories of all time, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. In it, a young couple short on cash faces the conflict: they want to buy Christmas presents for each other, but they have no money. The young man’s prize possession is his father’s watch, the young woman’s, her beautiful flowing hair. He sells his watch to buy her a comb for her hair, she cuts her hair to buy him a fob for his watch.
I bet each of you remembers when you first encountered that story and has never forgotten the bit about each person sacrificing what was most precious for the loved one.
What if each chapter of your novel was that memorable?
Maybe most of us can’t write a series of chapters as good as The Gift of the Magi, but most of us can write memorable chapters if we think about each one as a stand alone story.
It seems to me that the one thing that is different about the chapters in a novel and a typical short story is the ending. In O. Henry’s story, the thing that grabs us is the way he waits until the very last moment to spring the surprise twist on us. But once the twist occurs, the story is over, the conflict resolved.
You don’t want to resolve the conflict in your novel at the end of chapter one.
You need a cliffhanger.
This is where things get interesting. So, the novel has to have an overarching conflict that runs throughout its entire length, but it also must resolve conflicts chapter by chapter. This is how the characters grow and evolve from chapter one until the end.
So the real trick appears to be how to fashion each chapter so that it creates and resolves a conflict, while at the same time leaving the reader wanting more, wondering what is going to happen next.
This sounds harder than it is. Take this set up: a woman’s car breaks down on the Interstate at night. She has her small child with her. That’s conflict. Her cell phone is dead. It’s starting to rain. Car after car passes her. Finally, a vehicle she recognizes pulls to the shoulder of the road, and a friend of hers gets out. She offers to help. At the last minute, the friend in the second car pushes the first woman down, grabs the child out of the car seat and hightails it.
There are three sections, a conflict, the resolution and the cliffhanger that drives the reader forward.
So, what do you think? Do you write the chapters in your novel as if they were individual short stories?
Stephen Woodfin is author of the The Revelation Trilogy.