The Long and the Short of It From Short Story To Novel

The short story versus the novel, the difference between the two, and how you can turn any short story into a novel, are the subject of this chapter. The first question is, What's the difference between a short story and a novel? The outstanding difference, of course, is length. The question then becomes, How long (or short) is a short story, and how short (or long) is a novel? And then there's that novella thing that comes in there somewhere. A novella is too big to be a short story but too small to be a novel—too big to be little and too little to be big—a kind of literary adolescent. So, how big or small is the novella? Is it at 90 pages, 110, or 120 that a short story turns into a novella? And when does that novella turn into a novel? If we say that a short story becomes a novella at 110 pages, how much different would that novella be if we cut 1 page so that it was 109 pages and fit the definition of a short story? Or what if it were only one word shy of 110 pages?

OK, so there's no clear cutoff, no point where a short story transforms itself into a novella and a novella into a novel. But that doesn't mean it's not a meaningful distinction or that we shouldn't draw a line somewhere. After all, there's no such thing as a 1-page novel or a 1,000-page short story. So, number of pages is the most visible difference. But is that all there is to it—more words, more pages? What accounts for those words and pages that turn a short story into a novel? Is it just a matter of taking more words to say the same thing? Is it that concise writers write short stories and long-winded writers write novels? Or is there a story ingredient that makes the novel longer—some element that demands more words and pages to do the job?

Many people who write short pieces think that they'll never be able to stretch a short story into a novel (300 pages or more). It seems impossible to them, because it is impossible—in the sense that they're thinking, in the sense of padding and stretching out a short story until it's long enough to be a novel. That'll never work. That's not how it's done at all. When you write a novel, you need to have so much story that you don't know how you'll ever fit it all in. If you're used to writing only small pieces, you may be wondering where you're going to get all that material. Before we're done, you'll know exactly where to get it and how to use it.

You often hear people talking about the difference between short stories and novels from the aspect of such things as theme and scope. Those terms, first of all, are not writing terms. They're most often used by literature professors or critics. They're fine for what they're doing, but they're at the other end of the process. Theme and scope are not the terms writers think in or create in. They are the effect of the story, someone's idea of what the story means translated into abstract, intellectual terms, but they are not the story itself.

I've gone to great length to rid us of all those kinds of terms, because they only confuse the issue. Writers work with the meat of experience, what we can sink our teeth into. From that come theme, scope, meaning, etc. So, while most novels have a larger theme and greater scope than a short story, we need to be thinking not about that, but rather why, in story terms, in craft terms, that is true. What is it about the novel that gives it that broader scope and theme? It has nothing to do with covering more time. Some short stories cover years, and some novels take place in one day. And it's not territory. Some short stories circle the globe, while some novels never leave the house. So, what's the difference?

I want to get to the answer by having you experience the difference. First, I'm going to give you a plot that could be a short story, then retell it and turn it into a novel. Your job is to see if you can tell what I'm doing to turn it into a novel, what I'm adding so that it has to be a novel, so that it's too big to possibly fit into a short story. Here's the short story version.

This is the old boy-meets-girl plot. It goes something like: Boy meets girl, falls for her, and tries to get her interest. She rejects him. He tries again to woo her. She shuns him again. He tries harder and harder and finally charms and wins her. Now, that could be a short story of 20 or 30 pages. He could win her and lose her and win her again without adding more than 10 pages. Either way, we're not approaching anything even near a novella. It's a short story.

Now, I want to change it into a novel. To do that, I need to be more specific, but that's not what will account for the length. I wasn't specific in the short story plot, because we didn't need specifics and they would have just slowed things down. So, for our novel: These are college-age people. The boy already has a girlfriend. They've been living together for a year and getting pretty serious, especially the girl. They're going to graduate soon, and it's time to make some serious decisions about commitment. Now, the boy isn't sure how he feels about the whole thing. Does he really love the girl? How can he tell? He'd always imagined it would be more consuming and thrilling than this. Is this the person he wants to spend the rest of his life with? Should he split and look for someone else? But what if this is as good as it gets? What if he splits and loses her and regrets it for the rest of his life? How can he tell?

This is his dilemma, and he's stewing about it at the opening of the story as he and his girlfriend are getting ready to go out on a double date with a friend of his girlfriend's he's never met and her boyfriend. They're going to meet the other couple at the pub for beers before going to a movie together. OK, they get to the pub, meet the couple, sit down in the booth, and order a pitcher. And what happens? Can you guess?

Zap! His dream girl. Love at first sight. The boy knows instantly that the other girl is what he's been waiting for—if not this particular girl, then one who makes him feel this way. He's sure. It's this or nothing. He can't settle for less.

OK, what's next? What's his next move? He has to break up with his girlfriend. Now, he could keep her until he finds someone else, but we're going to have him do the decent thing and end it now, since he's sure about it.

So, now we have a breakup story. He wants out. Is she going to let him out easily? Is she going to go quietly? No, it's going to be messy, messy as you can or care to make it—big trouble, big pain (always). She could become suicidal or homicidal. She could stalk him and be lurking around throughout the entire story. But I'm not even going to use her that much. Just remember that we could.

OK, it's messy, but eventually he's rid of her, and things settle down. What's his next move? To make contact with the other woman. Now, is she going to be interested in him? Is he going to be just the kind of guy she's always dreamed of? No way. Her present boyfriend is a big, handsome football type. Our hero is nothing special—decent, but no knockout, no giant, no tough guy. She wants no part of him. "Are you nuts?" is her attitude.

So, he's got to work harder. He's got to make contact with her when her boyfriend isn't around and convince her to spend a little time with him. Let's say he dares or begs her to just spend a half hour with him so he can show her what kind of a guy he is. If he can't stir her heart in that half hour, he'll accept any decision she makes. Reluctantly she agrees, saying he's wasting his time, but she'll do it just to get rid of him. But, she tells him, they'd better be careful, because if her boyfriend finds out, he'll tear him apart. So, they meet. He makes his grand play, doing everything and anything he can think of to charm her.

It's possible that he could win her over in this scene. Or she might say she'll think about seeing him again. Or she might say that she's not impressed and leave, and he'd try again, breaking his promise. Or she might later call him, and say that she wanted to see him again. This could go on for quite awhile, but to keep it simple and not wring too much out of it, we'll say that she thinks he's pretty cute and wants to see more of him. So, now we have our character wooing and charming her and overcoming her resistance. Eventually she falls for him.

OK, what's the next step? She's got to break up with her boyfriend. Is he going to go quietly? Never! He's big and dangerous, and he's going to raise hell. He's got to run into the two of them together and to get the hero alone and have a scene or scenes with him. But I don't want to milk that for too much. The ex-boyfriend could be an ongoing character throughout the novel, but I'm not going to use him much.

So, things settle down and are relatively peaceful. I'm not going to get into the kinds of issues and troubles people have to face and work out in any relationship, but just note that we could. But where are we now? Short story, novella, or novel territory? We're at least into a sizable short story if not bordering on a novella. But, it may not feel that it has to be a novel. So, let's go on.

What's the next natural thing people do in normal, conventional society when they fall for each other? They get engaged, have sex, live together, but I'm not talking about any of that. That's all there to go into if you choose. I'm not. The next natural step is to meet the parents. So, she takes the boy home to meet her parents. And is he going to be the kind of person they always wanted for their daughter? Or is he going to be the wrong religion, wrong class, wrong ethnic group, wrong race, wrong profession (damn fool wants to be a writer!). Yes, he's all wrong, 100 percent, total. He has to be.

OK, so it's dinner at her house. I'm making the parents wealthy, and giving the new boyfriend a working-class, blue-collar background. He's the first offspring to go to college. So, we have four characters at dinner. What can happen there? One thing is that every character could have a meaningful scene with every other character. We can have a scene with all four characters together (1), a scene with the boy alone with the mother and father (2), a scene with the boy alone with the mother (3), a scene with the boy alone with the father (4), a scene with the boy, the girl, and the mother (5), a scene with the boy, the girl, and the father (6), a scene with the girl and the mother and father (7), a scene with the girl alone with the father (8), a scene with the girl alone with the mother (9), a scene with the boy and girl alone together (10), a scene with the parents alone (11).

Now, that's too much to hold in your head at one time. But if you think of each possibility, you'll see it makes sense. In each of these possible scenes, the characters would act, and have reason to act, differently. For example, the father could be perfectly friendly and encouraging to the boy while others are present. Then, when he's alone with the boy, he'll say, "Look, you punk. I'll buy you off, or you'll find yourself floating face down in the river. Take your pick, because there's no way in hell you're getting my little girl. Repeat one word of this, and you won't make it to graduation alive."

Now, you don't always do all the possible scenes, but you should consider each of them—consider every character having a scene with every other character. In this case the dynamics and the possibilities are there to do them all if you choose to. If you do, you'll have eleven scenes at, say, 3 to 5 pages each. That's 33 to 55 pages for the dinner. However you do it, it'll make a hefty chapter.

So where are we? We're not done, but are we approaching novel length? Does it feel like it's beyond the short story, that it can no longer be a short story and must be a novel? And can you see what I'm doing to make it a novel?

Let's work on story possibilities a little more before getting into the specifics of craft. So, the boy has survived dinner with his new girlfriend's parents—for the moment. What's next in the natural sequence of events in conventional society? Meeting his parents. And how is bringing the girl to dinner in his parents' home going to go? Not well. It cannot. It would be nice if there were alcoholism, spousal abuse, gambling problems, inappropriate flirting from the father, a possessive mother. And here we have four characters again, which gives us another possible eleven scenes, another meaty chapter.

All right, they've met each other's parents. What's the next step? Parents meet parents. Where will that take place? I'm thinking that the working-class parents go to the girl's mansion. And what could go on? Now, we have six characters. How many scene possibilities do you imagine we have with six characters? Fifty-seven. Now, this is not mathematics or science. It's art. I'm making my point by showing you the magnitude of possibilities. Many things enter into which scenes you choose to do. But with dinner at the girl's parents, you should be able to feel the kind of discomfort, unpleasantness, sparks, fireworks that might take place—all opportunities for revealing who these people really are (girl and boy included).

The lower-class father might ask all kinds of inappropriate questions. He could even try to bum some money from the girl's father when they're alone in the study. Or perhaps he's a union shop steward— uneducated, but crafty and clever and a master of insinuating and provoking. He could pocket a valuable knickknack. The movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner had only 6 characters having dinner, and that was a feature-length movie. We're way beyond that. Don't forget that we could use the ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend. And we haven't brought in siblings or other relatives, who could also be involved. And then there's a wedding or plans for it, possibly. Father of the Bride was an entire movie about a wedding. So, we're not into any of that, but it should feel that our short story has turned into a novel.

OK, it's a novel, but what have I been doing? What have I been adding to the story to turn it into a novel? What's the difference between the short story version and the novel I've been turning it into? There are more conflict and more scenes, but what accounts for them? One thing and one thing only: MORE CHARACTERS. More characters, who are more trouble, more scenes, more pages. Believe it or not, that's all there is to it. That doesn't mean it's easy. It takes work, but it is that simple.

As long as each character you add brings into the mix a problem, a complication, an obstacle that has to be overcome, your story will grow and grow until it becomes a novel. Each character must have a natural connection to the story and add to the problem. No one is just there in fiction. No one is along for the ride. Everyone must serve a purpose, our ongoing purpose, which is to reveal character. Additional characters cause more trouble, forcing the other characters to act and reveal more of themselves. The novel is longer because the problem is bigger, the conflict more complicated and longer running. That larger, longer conflict is created by the presence of more characters. In terms of story elements, more characters are the difference between the short story and the novel.

In the short story version, the boy and girl both had parents and might each have had lovers when they met, but we didn't get into any of that. We didn't get into whether they were students or employed. It was about him and her and that's all. To turn the short story into a novel, I added characters who were naturally connected, closely and intimately, to the boy and girl, characters who had or felt they had something to gain or lose by the boy and girl uniting. We've by no means exhausted the logical supply of characters. To turn a short story into a novel, add more characters, characters who are invested in the outcome of the story, who feel, for reasons good or bad, real or imaginary, that they stand to win or lose by that outcome.

Now, that doesn't mean you have to know what a character's connection or investment is when he emerges in your mind or on the page. He doesn't have to qualify to get in. You may just have an urge to put someone in the story. If you have such an urge, follow it. Respect your urges. Then, as you write, you can work him in, make him necessary, find the character's connection or create one. Remember, in the end, and at the beginning, this is a game of the heart, the emotions. If it feels good, do it. In between, you use craft and technique to get the most out of the story and yourself, to make it all fit together, and to relocate your heart when it gets lost in the shuffle. Craft and technique are the tools that you use to keep yourself on track.

So, it's more characters that turns a short story into a novel. This more character stuff I like to call the mathematics of fiction. Now, this is art, not science, so putting numbers on things goes against the spirit of it all. I'm not trying to turn it into math or mechanics. But I put numbers on things whenever it will help give us a feel for the magnitude or the degree of some story issue. This is an elusive game. Whenever putting a number on things will make them clearer, it's worth doing, as long as you keep in mind that it's only an estimate.

So, exactly how much does adding characters increase the length of a story? Well, let's say that a 2-character story has one fundamental scene or character combination-the 2 characters together. Now, for this example, I'm not counting repeat scenes or scenes that the character has alone with him or herself (and there are many of both). To keep it simple, we're talking about possible scenes as determined by number of single scenes between characters.

So, 2 characters give us 1 scene. How many scenes would adding a third character give us? Three characters give us 4 possible scenes (all 3 characters together and each alone with 1 of the other 3). When we add a fourth character, the number of possible scenes jumps to 11 (more than doubles). Five characters give us 26 scenes. Six characters give us 57 scenes. Seven characters give us 120 scenes. Eight characters are 250 scenes. Nine are 520. Ten are over 1,000 possible scenes. Ten characters are not a lot of characters for a novel. I was reading a Larry McMurtry novel, Comanche Moon. It had 16 characters in the first fifty pages, and it didn't feel crowded, nor was it hard to keep track of who was who.

Note that I'm talking about possible scenes. At some point it isn't practical or true to the story to have every single character having a scene with the other characters in every possible combination. But this mathematical example should give you a sense of the magnitude of possibilities for scenes and story. Whatever your story, it's critical to always consider every character having a scene with every other character. If you have a dangerous, threatening, impulsive character and a frail, defenseless character in the same story, they must meet in a setting where the weak character is at the mercy of the dangerous one. Otherwise, what's the point? Fiction is about exploring the forces at work in us and what happens when those forces collide.

Many opportunities for drama, excitement, and expression of character are missed simply because the author didn't have characters come in contact with each other. Considering a possible scene doesn't mean you'll do it. But not doing it because you thought about it and decided against it is a lot different from not even thinking of it in the first place. By not considering each character having a scene with every other character, you often miss an opportunity to discover something about your characters, your story, human nature, and yourself.

Now, there are exceptions to everything I say. It's conceivable that there could be a story in which the dangerous character and the weak character wouldn't meet. But there must be a good reason for it not happening, a story reason. What would such a reason be, and how do you make such a decision? That reason has to do with the very purpose of story itself, and you get to it and make your decision by asking, always, which way is more dramatic, which way reveals more of the characters?

So, in this case, you would have to work it so that it would be more dramatic and more exciting and more revealing if the dangerous character didn't meet the weak character. That would be difficult to accomplish. Doing (meeting and confronting) is almost always more dramatic than not doing (avoiding). But then, it doesn't have to be one or the other. In this game you try to consider everything. It's possible that it could be both—not meeting and meeting. If you create excitement by having them not meet but come close, you can still go on and have them meet. It's often possible to have it both ways and get a lot more out of the characters than by just doing one or the other.

I find the idea of not meeting being more dramatic than meeting hard to imagine, but this is not science, so we need to allow for it (and anything else that might pop into our heads). Just remember that the way you make such decisions is to ask, "What's more dramatic?" and "What reveals more character?" Those are your main considerations—always.

So, the number of possible scenes skyrockets as you add characters. It more than doubles with each additional character. When you add repeat scenes between characters and scenes with characters alone with themselves, you generate enormous amounts of material. That's exactly where you want to be when you write a novel. You want to have so much material that you feel you're going to have trouble fitting it all in and not feel that you have to stretch and push and pad everything to have enough. If you don't feel you have enough to begin, that doesn't mean you can't start without it. You simply need to keep in mind that you can generate as much as you need by adding more characters where you can as you get into it.

Some writers start with little or nothing and expand the story as they go. Those writers (who are in the majority) like the adventure and surprise of not knowing where they're going. They solve problems when they come up. Other writers (a substantial number) plan the story ahead. If planning ahead works for you, do it. Just watch out that you don't get paralyzed worrying about problems ahead of time. That's another reason why the majority of writers tend to plan less. If you do plan, do it on the page. Working in the head is a bad choice for almost all writers.

Also, it's not that you're either a planner or not a planner. You don't work in the same way on every story. Sometimes you might plan because a particular story comes to you that way. The next time you start with no plan. You may plan some parts of the story and not others. The main thing is not to lock yourself into a single approach. Do what feels right, and don't get tangled up in how you should do it. The only should when it comes to creating is, you should do what works. No matter how strange or weird or illogical it seems, if it works, do it—and don't waste time trying to figure out why. Just go!

That's the novel, but there are a lot of different kinds of novels, different genres—science fiction, mystery, adventure, crime, spy, fantasy, romance, historical, etc. Which kind should you write? That depends on a lot of things. It depends on your taste, what's in your heart, your skill, what you want to achieve (publication, money, prestige), the marketplace.

First, at the time of this writing, the book market is great. Agents are being very creative in approaching publishers and getting huge sums for their authors. Publishers often seem willing to bid on a book that they have seen little or none of but whose concept attracts them. All of this drives prices up. Money for some of these not-so-well or even poorly written novels is in the millions.

David Baldacci's Absolute Power got five million dollars. It was his first novel and not well written by any stretch. It's worth checking to see how little it's possible to get away with. OK, but what did it have going for it? It had a hot idea and perfect timing and a sharp agent. It was about a president of the United States who gets into a fight with his mistress and kills her. The Secret Service is there, and they have to cover up the murder. Now, with Clinton in the White House and Sexgate in full swing, what better idea could you have had for a novel?

OK, you're deciding what kind of novel to write. You certainly can't count on the kind of thing Baldacci's novel had going for it. But knowing what gives you the best chance is what's important. So, what's the most salable kind of novel? It so happens that the most salable is also the easiest to write. Any idea what it is? Often half to two-thirds of all novels on the bestseller list are this type of novel. It's the mystery.

The mystery has its own built-in drama and energy. Any time there's a dead body, everyone's interested in who did it, why, and how. It's human nature. So, the audience is there. Also, you don't have to write so well to pull it off. Check the writing in the mysteries at the bookstore next time you're browsing. It's pretty mediocre. Now, there are some really classy writers writing mysteries. Mysteries in that class are called literary mysteries. So, even though there are a lot of shabby mysteries around, we shouldn't be looking down our noses at the genre. (I'm including crime novels with mysteries. In a crime novel you usually know who did it from the beginning.)

So, you don't have to write beneath yourself to write a mystery. Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov was a mystery. Your story and characters can have as much depth as in any other kind of writing. One way to write a mystery is to create a murder that seems impossible to solve. Then you and your characters work like hell to figure it out and catch the killer. You don't have to have any idea who did it to begin writing. The famous mystery writer Ed McBain says he starts with a corpse or someone who is going to become a corpse and from then on he has to go on the same clues as the cops do.

It's possible to turn any story into a mystery. Know how? Kill someone. A dead body gives us instant drama, suspense, mystery. We identify with anyone who's been murdered as long as he or she is not a villain. Let's try it. Take the boy/girl romance we just went through. Who's our victim? Who shall we kill off? Well, it can be anybody except the boy, because it's his story. He's the main character. So, who's a prime candidate for murder? Whom we kill will cast suspicion on different characters and push the story in a different direction.

Without dragging it out, I'll give you my version. Yours will be just as valid if you see it differently and murder someone else. Personally, I would kill the girl's father. If we murder the father, who would be the prime suspect? For drama and suspense and tension I would have the boy be the main suspect. The father didn't like him, he's threatened him, and he was in the way of the boy winning his daughter. And if he's the prime suspect, that almost always means he's innocent. Who might be the killer?

It could be the ex-girlfriend trying to get revenge, knowing the boy would be blamed, especially after she leaves some incriminating evidence at the crime scene. She could have something of his with his fingerprints on it and use it as the murder weapon. She might or might not be in cahoots with the ex-boyfriend, who would have a similar motive and who would have easier access to the father since he knows him. Also, since the ex-boyfriend is stronger than the ex-girlfriend, he would be better able to do the father in. A plot complication could be that the ex-girlfriend has also set the ex-boyfriend up as the fall guy should the police come after her. Or the ex-boyfriend could have masterminded it on his own and recruited the ex-girlfriend to help, setting her up to take the fall if he got cornered. Or each could have set the other up to take the fall. Or he could be in it alone, but have set it up to look like the boy and ex-girlfriend did it. He could testify that they were still lovers and were in cahoots from the beginning to win the girl, marry her, then kill her for her money, but the girl's father discovered their plot, and they had to kill him. That's a complicated one, tricky to follow, but the kind of story that makes for dramatic unraveling.

Or it could be the girl's mother, who'd discovered her husband had been cheating on her and planned on leaving her. She saw the opportunity with the new boy on the scene whom the father disliked, and she made it look like the boy did it. It could also be either one of the boy's parents. That would bring in a whole other set of motives that would have to be worked out. All of these choices are equally good, depending on how you work the characters and the story.

None of these characters, however, are my personal choice as murderer. I would choose the only remaining character, the daughter. I would have her do it because her father is disinheriting her out of hatred for her first boyfriend. The girl and her original boyfriend are in it together. She never loved the new boyfriend (our main character, our hero), and she saw him as nothing more than a fall guy from the beginning. I like that because that makes her more diabolical and the story more shocking and painful for the hero.

So, the mystery is the easiest kind of book to write and the easiest to sell. It's ready-made, with excitement and drama built in. And there are no limits to how deeply you can develop your characters or how strongly the book can be written. If the mystery is the easiest, what's the hardest?

The hardest kind of novel to write is the one more beginning writers pick to write than any other. It's a very personal story that relies heavily on the internal world (the mind) of the character and on the character's internal growth as a person. For that reason, I call it the internal novel. There are some great ones, and all writers are capable of doing it successfully since every one of us has a dramatic and complex mind, but it requires the most skill. That's why I'm pushing the mystery as the choice for your first novel. By making your mystery as personal as you can, you can learn the skills you need to wrestle successfully with the internal "serious" novel. But if you can't stand the idea of a mystery, don't bother. The mystery is easier, but only if you're drawn to it. If you're dying to write a personal, internal novel, if you have your heart set on it, then do it.

"Personal" doesn't necessarily mean the book is autobiographical. It often is, but it doesn't have to be. How much the story depends on the character's relationship and struggle with himself, how much it hinges on or is about internal growth and insight, are what make it personal and internal. It's a type of story. It tends to be autobiographical, often about the author's big lessons in life, but it doesn't have to be. It's what would often be called a "sensitive" novel. Silence of the Lambs has plenty of sensitive writing, but it's not what comes to mind when you think of sensitive novels. Sensitivity is part of Silence of the Lambs, but not its outstanding quality.

All novels have to be sensitive enough, or we won't give a damn about the characters or the story. Also, it is not that a novel is one thing or another. The different elements blend together, and how they do so depends on the story. All literary novels (mysteries or not) have a major personal, internal, sensitive dimension. It's where the strongest connection (see chapter 6) is made to the character. So, you've got to have that dimension, always, but the whole novel doesn't have to hinge on having a lot of it and doing it really well unless it's what I'm calling an internal novel. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham are both internal novels.

It's this sensitivity to the character's internal world that makes the internal novel so difficult. It's a lot more about how the character feels (self-esteem, adequacy, irrational fears, etc.) than about what's going on outside. The internal struggle in the character is much more difficult to figure out and express dramatically than what would be going on in the character if he were being stalked by a maniac slasher. In the slasher story, all of the character's internal energies would be mobilized and focused on survival. Personal and internal issues are being played out, but they're more a response to the external threat and don't have to get deeply into the character's personal struggles. When a mystery or crime novel goes more deeply (a character might have strong beliefs against raising his hand against anyone even to save himself or his loved ones), we're getting into the areas of quality mysteries or literary mysteries. The mind is a dramatic place, but it's complicated, many leveled, and it's the trickiest of all to get right on the page. See chapter 6, on emotion, for a fuller examination of this.

When you write an internal novel, the biggest problem, beyond creating the character's internal world, is keeping the drama going outside the character. Fiction is never a head game only. It's about how the world affects our head and how those internal effects influence how we relate to and affect the world. To write an internal novel you have to do both the external and internal well to succeed. The beginning writer's biggest failings are (1) focusing too much on the internal world while not having the skill to do it well, and (2) not creating enough external drama to move the story.

My concern with what kind of novel you choose to tackle first is based on my thirty years of work with writers and the high risk of discouragement and quitting that comes with trying an internal novel first. My advice is to realize that you're a beginner and pick the kind of novel you're going to learn the most from and have the most pleasure writing and the most chance of success with-the mystery. If you're set on doing an internal novel, the story craft is identical. It does not change from genre to genre or form to form (novel to movie to stage). But be sure to pay attention to keeping the external drama and excitement going. The novel has to be about big trouble outside as well as inside. If you have an idea for a personal, internal novel and you're in love with it, but you decide to do a mystery instead, you're not deserting your big story. You can do it later when you have the skill.

Speaking of skill, it's time to do some writing.


A search for a lost or stolen priceless object. It could also be something intangible like a lost reputation. Setting out alone to seek one's fortune. The search can take place on home turf (small town, big city, school yard, health club), in a strange foreign land, or across the globe.

A character sets out to find someone, seek revenge, get information. To catch a bad guy or rescue someone from himself (drugs) or from another person. Again, the story can take place within a single family, within one room, or across the globe.

A character's romantic adventures and misadventures.

You can find a lot of material by outlining your own life-the high points and trouble you had at each phase. How you accomplished your developmental tasks, starting with childhood, at home with family, in elementary school, high school, college, and with friends and enemies. Make a list of all the schools you attended and the places where you lived and what happened there. List your friends and enemies-those you loved and those you hated in your family and outside of it. Most families are a mess. There are loads of material there. However, that doesn't mean you should use it if you're not drawn to it. Some writers do well by writing about themselves (autobiographical novels), such as Hemingway, Maugham, Roth. Others need more distance and stay away from their own lives. Neither way is more valid, creative, or valuable.

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