In the consumption of a novel, not every reader will have invested money but they will all have invested their time. It is this commitment that places demands on the author. The upshot of which: readers will put in the hours, providing the following is met: a) The crime is solved. b) The protagonist survives relatively unscathed. c) The bad guys get their comeuppance.

Breaking these rules is doable, but risky. Novel writers aim to cultivate a deep emotional attachment between the reader and their characters. This restricts what the author can get away with. Ultimately, good has to prevail. My point is this: The more time a reader invests, the more they will expect to be rewarded with the payoff, and that folks, means a happy ending.

Pssst, keep this to yourselves. Short stories are different, not all the rules apply.

The engine of the novel is the what happens next, each passage should be crafted with the purpose of keeping those pages turning. Short stories are concerned with the what happens now.

Authors of short stories can ultimately shock in any way they please. By all means kill off your heroes, reveal them as evil, or end with the bad guy becoming the true victim. But aren’t these twists familiar to novels? Nope, they break the formula, and are therefore rare and hard to pull off. Readers won’t accept a journey of trials and suffering only for your main character to be unmasked as the murdered. In a short story, you don’t even have to root for your hero, you just have to be interested in them. (Sit-coms are aware of this. Characters like Basil Fawlty, Blackadder and David Brent, work well in the short - 1/2 hour - format).

So short stories are easier to write than novels, right? Wrong.
Shorts are best set over a short period of time, usually an event, or in the case of crime writing, the crime itself. But crimes are concerned with much more than this. Predominantly, crime novels are about how the perpetrators are caught. But motive must be also explained and victims sympathized with etc…All of which is difficult in a short story. Your protagonist hasn’t the time to fail a few times, or overcome obstacles, before solving a case. There is only one pace to a short story. FAST.


Writers of short stories and novels can be as different as a sprinter and a marathon runner. One is built for power, for full-throttle energy. The other is a master of pacing, tactics and timing (whilst holding enough back for a final burst).

Short stories can still follow the basics: The Hook, The Conflict, The Climax, The Resolution, but often they fail because they do just that!


Please let me know your thoughs on the differences are between novels and short stories.

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I agree, but I would distill it down to this; a short story should be designed for an immediate emotional reaction. A novel should be designed to completely engage the reader's emotional and intellectual selves.
That's very true, B.R.
I write both. And yes, they are different, but not necessarily as different as you imply. In a short story, there will be fewer complications, and there is no time to develop the character of the protagonist and of other persons, but you can still have suspects and clues and surprises. You can even have setting, though that tends to make the stories longer.
I agree in general, but I think your comments on novels apply best to mystery novels, and not the broader topic of crime fiction. Many writers (Elmore Leonard, John McFetridge, Victor Gischler, Scott Phillips pop to mind as recent reads of mine) do not need to have the crime solved and the perpetrator brought to justice; the whole point of the book may be that the perp is NOT brought down. These books still rely on the traditional means of a successful story: well-developed, empathetic characters, and all the other virtues you name above. There's no requirement to solve a crime, or even to make the protagonist a "good guy."
Yes, but that also applies to the story.
Thanks for all the comments.

Dana: I would still argue that crime readers have to like their main characters and thus deep down they must be seen as ‘good’. Even if he is a hit-man (Keller in Larry Block’s Hit and Run) he must have many redeeming and identifiable qualities.

As for leaving crimes unsolved, this is rare in stand alone books. Even if the hero/authorities don’t crack the case, the author will usually allow the reader to solve the crime and in some way apply their own justice.

You are of course right that crime fiction is broad and not tying up the question who dunnit? Can work for some novels if, as you say, that is the whole point of the book.
I agree. Even novels which revolve around sociopathic serial killers (Dexter, Hannibal, etc) take the time to make the reader empathise. Although the main characters in these books are for all intents and purposes EVIL they're still likeable and that's important.

Also, I noted your point above that the protagonist must come out of it relatively unscathed. I agree to an extent - killing the golden goose is never a good idea, especially when the readers like them. When Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, readers sent him death threats. Killing your protagonist can go too far, but I think wounding them is an entirely different matter. In the TV series BONES, Agent Booth loses some of his physical prowess when he has a brain tumour removed and, since Booth pretty much relied on his abilities as his raison d'etre, his struggles to regain his lost self serve to draw the viewers in on a deeper, emotional level. It's sad when you see Booth cry because he's lost something valuable. Also: wounding a main character might bring their mental abilities into sharper focus, like Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector. He's stuck in bed all the time, so he has to make up for it by being really smart - and again, readers feel bad for him mostly because we dread what would happen if we were in that position.
Coming from the author in me, I can't write short stories for some of the reasons people have mentioned. I've never been able to wrap up a story in 10,000 words or less! Shoot, I'm just getting my muse once I've finished 10,000 words, LOL! I salute anyone who can write a good short story because I just cannot do it. I continue to try, but I don't know. I guess I'm a bit on the long-winded side. Also, it depends on the genre. It's harder to write some genres so short, especially a mystery unless you play it out as a single scene which might be difficult.

As a reader, I love to read a good short story as much as a good novel. It depends on my mood. Sometimes I am not in the mood or too busy to invest in a longer story so I'll read some short stories and at least then, I'm entertained and have gotten some reading in. I save the longer books for when I am not so busy. I gotta be in a certain mood to commit to a book at times. Most times I am writing and it gets hard to do both so short stories work well then.

I must say, I don't think I've read many short crime stories. Most of the shorts I read are in other genres.

Best Wishes!


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