7 Tips To Turn Your Short Story Into A Novel
How often as a short story writer have you received the feedback, ‘Loved the story, I wanted to know more.’? Great, isn’t it?
What follows here is how you might, as a writer, make that happen by turning an engaging short story into a full-length novel.
I will use as an example Edna and Goliath, a story that won first prize for me in a writing competition a few years ago and which, should you be interested, is still available to read online on Bridgend Writers Circle website.
A well-precedented process
Many successful novels started out as short stories.
In 1923, Virginia Woolf’s story Mrs Dalloway in Bond St featured in the literary magazine, The Dial. Two years later, her novel, Mrs Dalloway, was published, the first sentence of each differing by only one word.
More recently, in 2010, NoViolet Bulawayo’s short story Hitting Budapest appeared in The Boston Review. Three years later, it became the first chapter of her prize-winning debut novel We Need New Names.
There are hundreds if not thousands more novels whose characters were first introduced in short-form fiction. Pushed even further, Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, a series of thirteen connected tales, has been described by the Guardian as a ‘story-sequence-come-novel’. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
The short story is a snapshot in time
The first step is recognising that a good short story, by definition, is short. Some of the best might even be described as sparse — their effectiveness lying in brevity and deft suggestion.
Even a long short story (5000-8000 words) only has a limited amount of space to describe the main character(s) and create sufficient impetus to persuade the reader to accompany them on their journey (which may be brief in terms of words, but seismic in respect of the characters’ transformation).
Many questions will remain unanswered, not least those concerning significant events that may have happened prior to the story and what happens after it ends. That’s what you’ll be addressing in the novel. So, you’re starting small and aiming big.
How to choose your story
Some short stories are better suited than others to being turned into a novel. Three criteria might help you decide:
- The success of the original short story. If it has done well in a competition, been accepted for publication, or received extremely positive feedback from writing colleagues (not just your family), then there’s ‘something’ about it that could be worth turning into ‘something more’. Remembering this positive feedback can help reassure you later when you begin to doubt yourself and wonder what on earth you were thinking pursuing this particular storyline.
- Characters that won’t go away. Sometimes, long after having written a story, the characters refuse to leave you alone. They keep popping up, almost demanding to be brought out again to play a part on a wider stage. This was the case with Edna in my short story — I kept thinking back to her, wanting to get to know her better.
- A key event or relationship (or possibly both) within the story. This will give you a solid base to further develop into a complex plot/storyline with a cast of supporting characters. In Edna and Goliath, the key event is Edna’s battle over the redevelopment of her neighbourhood. The novel concentrates on what happens to her next.
Choose your character(s) and the scope of their world(s)
Although I chose Edna, my main character from the short story, to be the chief protagonist of my novel, you don’t have to do that.
Generally, there are only two or three characters in a short story, but one of the secondary players may have a more interesting perspective when it comes to expanding the piece. Or it could be written from several different perspectives.
You may even change the viewpoint you write in — I stuck with first-person for my novel but could easily have switched to third person to allow a wider canvas.
That said, even if you decide to focus on your original character(s), don’t be afraid to change them. Much as I loved Edna’s spirit, I found she was too old for the story I wanted to tell in the novel, so I had to make her younger and change her name. Remember, it’s your novel, and you can do what you like!
Play around with mind maps
In practical terms, a mind map can be helpful once you’ve decided on your central protagonist. Write their name in the centre of a piece of paper and note down everything you know about them from the short story. Then free-think all the ways you might expand on that.
Obviously, in Edna and Goliath, a key relationship was Edna’s husband, but who will she turn to now she’s alone? What is she going to do? What possible outcomes exist for her? What might she want? What obstacles will stand in her way?
Where does the original episode fit?
Key to deciding how to expand your original story is considering how and where to place it in a longer work. I’ve used Edna and Goliath as the opening chapter for my book, but it needn’t be. The novel could have started much earlier, building up to the television interview and carrying on after that. Or, with some changes, I could have made the short story the final or penultimate chapter.
Partly this will depend on whether you want the incident in your story to be a primary driver or merely a secondary episode. It could be that you bypass the events in your original work entirely and just use it as inspiration.
As with all writing, there is no rigid ‘proper way’ — what’s important is what works for you.
Believe in yourself
If you’re a novice novel-writer, it’s crucial to approach writing a novel based on a short story with the same rigour and determination as you would any other novel. There is limitless advice and training available (in books, online, and at workshops) on what makes a successful novel and how to go about writing one. Follow this advice, and be prepared to fail.
Failure is part of the process so take heart from the fact that you are already familiar with, and fond of, some aspects of your work in progress, and the world welcomed your story the first time around. Certainly, those characters that called out to you for a second chance will be cheering you on — as perhaps will some of your original readers. And if it worked for Virginia Woolf…
Dianne Bown-Wilson is an accomplished short story writer who regularly has work published in print and online journals, magazines and anthologies. She was awarded first prize in the Exeter Literature Festival short story competition in 2020, having come second the previous year. She is currently working on two novels and a second collection of short stories.