The Long and Short of It

>> Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yay! I was good today so I get to blog! For those of you that care.

So, I'm going to discuss another topic, sparked by another blog buddy, Relax Max, who didn't realize there was a difference writing short stories vs. novels except that, with novels, "you have to drag it out more." While one does have to "drag" a novel longer (though, hopefully, one isn't "dragging it or it won't be a very good novel), writing the two, other than they're both fiction, is entirely different.

A novel gives you time. You can take your time introducing your characters and fleshing them out, time to expand on background or history or philosophy, time for large and small events to go by and make a cohesive whole. It is not a story about a single image or a single event, and, generally, not about a single character. It must be lively enough to engage and retain interest, fascinating enough to justify the background provided, compelling enough early on to be worth the time and have an ending that allows it to stand on its own. It doesn't have to answer every question, but it needs to be satisfying on it's own.

Only that last part always applies to a short story. A short story should make characters alive and compelling, set the stage, and then do whatever the intent of the short story is, but you don't have time to do so leisurely. Characters must be painted quickly but clearly, which means you can't give them the same opportunities for growth, the same level of backstory, the same amount of time devoted to dialog. The character must come through quickly or it will be missed. Similarly, description, which is more key, I think, to a short story than a novel, must be effective and efficient, describing only those elements that add to the story and forgoing anything that doesn't. Dialog must be crisp and can be used effectively, but make it count.

A short story has a great deal of versatility. It can expand on an image, make a societal point, play with a concept. It can be a small piece of a larger cloth, but it must be self contained. Everything you need to understand, to explain, to see and hear the characters and settings must be there. It's fine to get people interested in knowing more about the characters, more about the world in which they live, more about what happens next, but the story must stand on its own or it's really a chapter.

I mentioned to Relax Max that being an excellent novelist does not mean you write good stories and vice versa. There were a number of writers who particularly excelled at writing stories like Poe, O'Henry, Sake never really wrote long works. Some, like Heinlein, excelled in both.

And, of course, don't forget I'm looking for readers to provide opinions on my own short stories.


  • Project Savior

    Having written both I can tell you the passion I feel in writing them is different.
    A short story is like a fleeting kiss from a stranger (ok, a quick one-night stand), intense while its happening, all consuming and incredibly satisfying when it's done, and if its good you wish it wasn't over.
    Writing a Novel is like a love affair, you're constantly thinking about it, you look forward to what the next day will bring, and you don't know if it will work out until you (hopefully) hit a moment when its become part of you.

  • Stephanie B

    Agreed. Nearly every short story I've written was written in one sitting. I might go back and polish, refine, revise, but the story itself was conceived and completed as a single thought.

    I've had stories that seemed to write themselves, where I was only two sentences ahead of where I was writing with no idea how it would end up. Those stories are almost always "complete" (i.e. needing little or no revision) when I stand back up.

    You can't do that with a novel. Even if you're going with the flow on a novel, you have to have some feel for where you're going so you can set hints, and put useful bits into place for later use. You have to know who your characters are and be prepared to go back and change (a lot) as you go because your goals and ways and means can change drastically as the book continues.

    Excellent analogy, Project Savior.

  • Project Savior

    Even stranger, in writing a novel, is your characters start to take on a life of their own and you are trying to push them to do something and they have to go about it in their own way and you (or maybe it's just me) start yelling at them (well just the computer screen) to do something but in order to stay in character they don't go straight to the task you want them to do.
    In a short story you don't have the option of them disagreeing with you.

  • The Mother

    I haven't tried the short story genre. I think it terrifies me. Too much to say, too little time.

  • Jeff King

    agree mother, i feel i have left to much out to make a compeling short story.

    it takes alot of talent/ or dif talent to write good short stories.

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  • Relax Max

    A great day. You get to blog. For those who care, you say. I care. Lots of us care.

    I realize what you said about the difference between short stories and novels is true. Unfortunately my interest is in sorting information. The novel will have to wait. Or not. But thank you.

    I have been reading some of your short stories. A variety of subjects, to be sure. I don't have the fiction skills to presume to offer criticism, but I will still continue reading.

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