“The Short and the Long of It: Turning a Short Story into a Novel” by Maria Alexander
Have you ever written a short story and thought it would make an even better book? I started writing short stories long before I ever tried to write novels. Both of my current books are based on short stories I wrote. Mr. Wicker, which won the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, was based on an unpublished short story of the same title, as well as a screenplay. My latest book, a young adult novel called Snowed, is based on my flash fiction piece, “Coming Home.” First published in 1999, it was reprinted several times, turned into a one-act play by Los Angeles Women in Theatre, and even produced as a podcast.
But how do you take a small idea and turn it into a big one? One that transforms a few hundred or thousand words into a book-length page-turner? In both stories, the protagonist was fairly isolated, dealing with a major problem on his or her own. To create a book-length idea, I had to involve other people in the drama and give them stakes in what happens.
For example, in the short story “Mr. Wicker,” Alicia Baum commits suicide and discovers a place beyond death called The Library of Lost Childhood Memories where she learns she’s missing a childhood memory. After paramedics revive her, she soon goes home and returns to the Library twice by supernatural means. Although tempted to stay with the Librarian, Mr. Wicker, she instead collects the memory and brings it back to our world to her therapist.
The novel Mr. Wicker brings in more characters. Like in the short story, Alicia encounters the Librarian in Chapter One after her suicide. However, she then wakes up in a hospital where she meets Dr. Farron, a child psychiatrist who’s investigating a psychological phenomenon called “Mr. Wicker.” Now we have two people who are motivated to find out who Mr. Wicker is, as well as the missing memory. But not everyone wants the memory found, including Mr. Wicker himself. The missing memory also changed. It’s much bigger than the one in the story. It involves more people and its discovery is far more dangerous.
In Snowed, the transformation is more profound because “Coming Home” is a twelve hundred-word, first-person flash piece. In an O. Henry twist at the end, we realize who the protagonist really is talking about when his worst fears come true. (People often re-read the story to see how they were fooled the first time around.) But when I wrote Snowed, a “twist” ending just wasn’t enough. Instead, I created a series of twists that throw the reader on a roller coaster ride landing on the last page
To that end, I took the protagonist of the short story and made him a secondary character to preserve the mystery of his identity as long as possible. And just like in Mr. Wicker, I changed the secret. I made sure this new secret would not only threaten the life of our new protagonist, 16-year-old Charity Jones, but also her friends and love interest.
Adding relationships and increasing the stakes are key to turning a small idea into a big one. The real challenge is when the story has been published and widely read, like “Coming Home.” I hope those who haven’t read the short story will give the book a shot first. If you like being fooled, you’ll love being Snowed.
Maria Alexander is an award-winning author and samurai-in-training who lives in Los Angeles. Snowed is coming to shred teen Xmas stockings on November 2, 2016 from Raw Dog Screaming Press. You can learn more about her at www.mariaalexander.net.