Short Story Techniques for Novel Writing

If you want to be a great writer, you have to learn to write well.

On that advice, beginning writers often spend more of their time studying the craft of writing instead of creating the stories.

Or, at least I do. Still attempting to crank out my first novel, I assume that how-to books on writing (successful) 80,000+ word stories should find permanent space on my bookshelf and time in my hands. But, I’m discovering that techniques for crafting longer works can be found from other sources that don’t focus on the novel specifically.

Back in March, Lydia Sharp (from The Sharp Angle) published a post where she explains that “[a] good way to improve your skills as a novelist is to write short fiction.” Short stories require structure the same as novels — clear plot points and solid character development. And, short stories have less time (and word count) to accomplish these goals.

If you can master the techniques in short fiction, you can master them in novels.

But even with Sharp’s convincing post, it’s easy to minimize the benefits of short story writing, because Oh…a whole novel gives me plenty of word count to fill in plot points and work in characterization. Yet, under the protection of more space to “fill,” each word must have a strong purpose or the reader will lose interest. And, fast.

Tom Bailey’s A Short Story Writer’s Companion* offers plenty of lessons on characterization, dialogue, and voice. But it was Andre Dubus’s essay – filed under the category of Rewriting – that solidified the translation of short story techniques to novels.

Andre Dubus, image from

In “The Habit of Writing,” Dubus speaks about character development and draws on a technique he calls “vertical writing.” After pushing through a story and still feeling a strong disconnect from the character, Anna (in his novella, Adultery), Dubus decides to dig deeper into her psyche and to find out exactly what Anna was feeling.

“…[F]or years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could. Very slowly, I worked on feeling all of her physical sensations. Following her through her day [thinking]: “Just follow the dots: become the character and follow; there will be a story” p. 137.

I’ve heard of character journals, and there are several great worksheets online that help characters come to life. But, Dubus’s words “vertical writing” and “follow the dots” give me a much better visual. And, it’s a technique that complements my tendency to write a story more organically. For me, character worksheets act like lists, which can be confining (in writing, anyway…everyday life is a different story), and I always stray from outlines.

I know, some writers cringe at the thought of organic writing – No outline, No peace! – but Dubus makes a good case when he talks about his own process:

“I try never to think about where a story will go…I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender” p. 136.

Larry Brooks, in his essay (posted on WriteToDone), “SOLVED: The Outlining vs. Organic Writing Debate,” also supports organic writing. He says, in comparing premeditated with by-the-seat-of-your-pants, neither process is better than the other. Both can work as long as certain protocol is followed:

“[S]tory architecture is universal. If a writer understands basic story architecture, organic drafting becomes an efficient and joyful process.”

Short story techniques – like Dubus’s ideas of organic and vertical writing – offer me more ideas on how to tackle that novel. If the story is moving forward but feeling flat, I can pause and then write downward instead: follow the dots of the character that alludes me — an organic writing technique that doesn’t ignore the structure of the story, but enhances it.


* Bailey, Tom. A Short Story Writer’s Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print. (check citation format)



15 responses to “Short Story Techniques for Novel Writing

  1. Some interesting ideas here. Certainly writing short stories makes you really think about each sentence and whether you are moving the story along or simply bogging it down with unnecessary details. Thanks for sharing this post.

  2. This is a great post with some great examples. I absolutely love the short story. All I wrote in college while I was getting my creative writing degree were short stories and poetry. I think learning those two things better prepared me to write novels than just sitting down to write a novel ever would. I think that was a great foundation and now a great resource at my fingertips.

    I’m currently holding a short story contest, and if you come up with something good you’d like to enter, that would be great! You can find the link here: Short Story Contest

    I usually combine organic writing with loose outlining, and that has worked well for me. Right now I’m working on a novella – a good balance between the short story and the novel. It has been a lot of fun!

    • Lady Glamis,

      Thanks for visiting and posting a comment. Organic writing with loose outlining, I like that idea. And, I’ll definitely check out the link to your contest!

  3. Well written and very helpful, Christi. Thank you. And a personal, “yay” for words of support for organic writing – and for writing short stories along with noveling. The stories do help me develop and hone my skills – and I have used short stories to develop specific parts of my novel. I also find short stories to be a refreshing break from the novel and to keep my sometimes distracted brain writing when I feel I don’t have enough time to dive into the novel.

    Three cheers for “organic writing and loose outlining.”

  4. I, too, wrote short stories & poetry in Grad School for the specific purpose of learning how to make words ‘earn the space they occupy’. Journalism is another place for such a practice.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your article. If you have time to join us in the Writer’s Adventure Group, you’d be a super addition

  5. Great post, Christi. I like that term as well – organic writing and loose outlining.

    I took a novel writing class that suggested something that sounds similar (maybe slightly less structured) than loose outlining – we simply made lists of scenes that we’d like see, what might happen to these characters, that kind of thing. It’s not even necessarily in order and then as you move through the organic writing, you skim the list to see what might come next.

    • Thanks, Cathryn, for your comment. I’m about to head North for the weekend and will be offline. So, your suggestion to make a list of scenes I’d like to see is a perfect option for my weekend away from computers and rewriting.

  6. I found that by taking apart my novel and writing short stories from each chapter has both given me the material for submitting and helped me revise.

    I just wish I could remember to go back and revise the novel each time I revise the short story.

    • Tricia, this is another interesting technique. Do you ever use one of your short stories in place of the chapter that inspired it?

      • I always like my new short better than my old version, but I can’t use it exactly because I have to alter it to stand alone. If I have a word limit, I’m amazed at how much I can cut. I’m afraid with this method I reduce too much out of my book, leaving with with too small a word count. 🙂

  7. Love Dubus’ vertical and horizontal writing distinction. Thanks for sharing.

  8. You’re welcome, Cynthia!

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