Finding the Genre Story’s Form

This shiny new idea that just popped into your head; that wormed its way out onto a page of notes – is it a novel? A novella? A novelette? Short story? Serial? How do you know what form fits the story?

I face this question more often and I suspect – or I hope – it is a sign of my progress in the craft. Ideas come from everywhere. They also arrive on a spectrum of completeness. I recently had an idea for an entire serial. I had all of the major elements from beginning to end in the length of time it took me to walk up nine flights of stairs. I’ve had another idea floating through my notebooks for nearly three years. So far it just a title with no story.

A million ideas but how many are stories, novels, or something else? I have learned to think through the following to find my story’s form. This is just my process and my thoughts on how stories work best. There are no absolutes in writing fiction, and I could change my thinking as I journey deeper into the craft.

First, is there a story? Is there some sort of conflict with at least two characters? They don’t have to be people but they do have to act as entities readers recognize as people. Without these two basic elements I think it is difficult to develop a story. You might have a setting or a contemplation but it won’t be a story.

If there’s conflict and characters in the idea—or I can see a way to those elements—is there a plot? A plot in the strict sense of three or five or seven parts is not always required. A plot could be something as simple as a character reaching a realization—an epiphany—that will change the course of their lives. This works well for short stories. In a very short story often the change or the epiphany is the point of the story.

Characters, some sort of a plot; now what? Setting. Where and when does the story happen? It rarely works to have characters acting in a place not firmly planted in the reader’s mind.

So I have all the elements, what story form should it be expressed in? In my experience this comes down to quantities. How many characters are needed to tell the story? One or two characters, one plot, one or two settings, try it as a short story or novelette at the longest.

In non-genre fiction you can write a complete novel with just a couple of characters, a restrictive setting, and a narrow, or even no plot. For genre writers this is more difficult. It’s not impossible but takes skill. Genre readers have expectations for the longer forms of genre stories. There have to be certain elements within the story to satisfy those expectations. Only the shorter forms seem to allow genre writers to work outside those expectations. Again, there are no absolutes, this is just how it works for me.

Have several characters and a couple of plots, and maybe several settings? Try a novella or novelette. Have a sweeping set of plots and subplots and a large cast of characters? Then try a novel, novel series, or even a serial.

Finally, what about the ideas that don’t make it as stories in any form? Keep them. They may fit inside another story later, or they may need just one more idea to flower into a story. And if it’s a strong idea but no story suggests itself, maybe try it as a poem. Let no good idea go to waste.