Fantasy Literature: Short Stories vs. The Novel

The art of writing a short story is distinctly different from writing a novel. There is far less “room” in a short story than a novel; you must make every word count, particularly if you are up against a tight word count. The story must be unified by a single theme or over-arching idea; there is no room for subplots and parallel memes. Depending on the genre, the notion of a twist is also quite prevalent. In fantasy literature, for example, there must be something in the story that takes it an unexpected direction, or flips our expectations upon their head. A piece of clean prose that tells a simple straightforward tale will not cut it. Nowadays, there is a requisite of something unusual, something that makes one look at the story from a clever angle.


One is also limited by characters and viewpoints in the short story. Generally, the writer is limited to a single viewpoint with but one protagonist and one antagonist. There might be a couple other minor characters, but they will be few in number and their roles hardly substantive.


A novel is an altogether different animal. While it is true, that there is usually a central theme for any great literary work, there also can be sub-themes and sub-plots and what have you. These can be developed throughout the course of the work, because there is no word-limit on a novel (although length of a novel certainly is no indicator of quality). Complex literary devices like symbolism and such can be fully employed in a novel; one has plenty of room to develop and expand upon such concepts. In the fantasy genre, the novel, like the short story, must be more than a straightforward tale. We are drawn to the unusual and the surprising. Because of its greater length, the novel has room for multiple twists, each one eliciting a pleasant burst of “ahh!” from the reader. A story of a brave knight rescuing a princess from a dragon no longer cuts it today.


In the fantasy novel, multiple viewpoints and plotlines have become almost standard practice. Rare is the novel with but a single protagonist these days.


So which one will you write? For myself, I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve written a number of short stories, with a few minor publishing successes. However, I got into writing to write novels not short stories. Short stories are great to hone your craft, to figure out the intricacies of fusing dialogue with narrative and what-have-you. And I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on short stories—I even have a number of short story ideas that will probably never come to fruition—but I have decided that I want to focus on novels. Besides, short stories don’t pay enough to support a writer. They exist to fluff the resume. And they are great for honing your craft. But, in my opinion, that is all they can do.

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About atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

14 responses to “Fantasy Literature: Short Stories vs. The Novel”

  1. kristinkingauthor says :

    I’ve only written two short stories, but I like the idea of making a collection even though it’s not very commercial. January 2nd I pushed the button to publish a short story–and the excitement of having wrung in the new year fingers on the keyboard will carry me far. I’m hoping to write more short stories this year.

  2. Steve says :

    So you don’t see any analogy between writing short stories vs. novels and a composer writing string quartets vs. symphonies? It is generally acknowledged that it is harder to write a great quarter than it is to write a great symphony (not that writing either is easy!) and I would have figured there to be a similar level of challenge with the written word. Not being a writer myself, perhaps the comparison is inaccurate (?).

    • atoasttodragons says :

      That might be true in some ways. You definitely have to master economy of word use to write a good short story. And since the monetary reward is so limited for short stories (not that novels–unless you hit it big–are a surefire route to financial success), I just prefer writing novels.

  3. debyfredericks says :

    Almost all the time, when I try to write a short story, it turns into the first three chapters of a novel. So it’s novels for me!

  4. Katinka says :

    I’m trying to write my novel as if it were a short story, so that each word counts and to limit exposition. I prefer the short story form to the novel, and I like the idea of a novel told in a series of short stories. Sort of like a TV series with chapters like episodes.

  5. beardedpoet says :

    I’m not sure that the story of the brave knight going to rescue the damsel from the dragon ever “cut it”–the good stories always had something more going on than that. That’s the trick to writing a short story: establishing a depth within such a time constraint. Now as for which I prefer to write–novel or short story–I can only say, both! Or rather, whichever I’ve been inspired to at a given moment. For I agree with you that they are different animals–different tempos, development, access, etc–and I feel like they even derive from different geniuses (ok, genii for those of you classical types)..

    • atoasttodragons says :

      Yeah, I suppose the knight and the dragon story probably belongs safely in the realm of children’s stories… but then there was St. George. Wasn’t he the classical example of that? Then it might fall into the category of religious folklore.

      • beardedpoet says :

        Ever read The Faerie Queen? There you have knights overthrowing monsters, giants, and other enemies–but this is no children’s literature. Certainly you may classify it as religious (but not as folklore), but that classification alone would be far inadequate.

        There are several Medieval tellings of St. George and the dragon–did you have a particular one in mind? Often, Medieval writers would re-tell standard stories and add an additional layer of meaning.

        Another classical example of a knight slaying a dragon was Beowulf. In its time (a transition between the pagan and Christian eras) it was more significant: if moderns read it as only an adventure story now, it’s because they’re missing some of the point.

      • atoasttodragons says :

        I read bits of the Faerie Queen in college; if I recall, the language used made it extremely difficult to follow, kind of like Canterbury Tales. I did not have a particular telling of St. George in mind, I was just referencing the legend.

  6. VRUC VETAR says :

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    • atoasttodragons says :

      I have thought about it, but I’m always leery of copyright issues. Perhaps, too much. I don’t want to inadvertently put up someone else copyrighted pics, because the only ones I can use are ones I find on the Net … I certainly can’t produce such material myself–at least, not of really good quality; I’m not that kind of artist. But thanks for the tip, I’ll think on it some more and maybe I will put a pic or two in if I can find some.

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