Short Stories vs Novels
There’s a myth that short stories are the perfect way to ‘train’ as a writer before moving on to novels. I used to have that view myself. Writing a short story means you have to pack your storytelling into a tight, concise bundle of words, plotting to finish long before a novel would, and being extremely ruthless with word count, sub-plots, and anything extraneous.
I’m glad that I was proved wrong, however; they are not the poor relation of novels. Good, well-written short stories are magnificent; badly-constructed short stories are awful, and give the good ones a very bad name.
Sherrie Flick is something of a prolific short story writer; she’s written a flash fiction chapbook called I Call This Flirting, as well as a novel called Reconsidering Happiness, and this is what she has to say about how she constructs stories:
“I write very-short short stories; 2,000 words or less, and I try to condense a vivid sense of the world into a small space. I compare the process to shoving an angry black bear into a lunch bag, without ripping the bag. My goal is to write a short story (often less than a page) that seems full to readers long after they walk away from it. I want them to think back on the story years later and add their own sub-plots, characters, and details. Ideally, the story expands beyond the page, and the reader is active in that expansion. Writing a novel is a much different process. Instead of holding back—working with a fragile amount of space and condensing language to make effective and subtle suggestions—I open up the word spigot and, in doing so, the fictional world of the story. My sentence structure lengthens in the novel manuscript, and I enter into the challenge of evoking complex atmosphere with a bigger, more expansive sense of character on the page. It’s like pulling the (still angry) bear back out of the bag without getting mauled.”
One of the most fundamental differences between the short story and the novel is not word length. A novel is not a short story that kept going, though a lot of short story writers dream of writing such a story. Neither is a novel a string of stories with a random collection of connective links, sub-plots, and inside jokes and comments. One of the first things the writer learns is how amazingly little room there is in a good novel for padding—for stuff that floats around the outside of the story, artificially puffing it up. The most significant difference between the short story and the novel is not length, but the weight of meaning that the novel has to carry from page to page, scene to scene. It’s not the sheer volume of words that creates a novel, it’s the connection between the lines, the plots and the meanings behind the storyline. In a good short story, the meaning is rather more tightly controlled in the main details of the text. A scene in a short story—and there may be only one—operates with a lot more focus and concentration. But a scene in a novel spins off a good deal of its energy looking not only backward and forward, but also sideways and around and about.
A 2004 Arts Council report found that just over half of ‘light to medium’ readers “sometimes read books of short stories.” It’s a situation that some in the publishing industry describe as a self-fulfilling prophecy: advances for short stories are much lower than those for novels; sales are expected to be one third or a quarter of those for a novel by the same writer, and marketing departments accordingly deny short stories much or any promotional budget. The advice the report offered writers was unequivocal: theme your collection, write it in such a way that it can be disguised as something else, or scrap it and write a novel instead.
So, the belief that the short story is a poor relation of the novel persists. Its roots reach back to the very beginning of literature, but the short story as we know it only came to be regarded as a distinct form in the 19th century, with works by Poe, Kleist, Gogol and Turgenev resisting established pigeonholes. In the 20th century the short story was the site of as much innovation and great writing as the novel. Consider Joyce, Borges, Kafka, Barthelme, Mansfield, Conrad, Carter, Kipling, Trevor or King; any of those effectively contributes towards the great literature of the last century.
Nadine Gordimer has said “I don’t think one should compare novels and stories. [The story] is a different thing.” The short story is quite different from the novel, but writers seem incapable of defining the short story other than by its difference from the novel. Deborah Eisenberg tells us that “the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel.” I just think that a good short story is magnificent and captivating, engaging your brain in short, sharp sentences in a way that novels often don’t—it’s a unique art form all of its own, and we should celebrate it.
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© 2018 Matthew Munson
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.