Size and Depth in Short and Long-Form Fiction

Reimagining the story arc as an aid to avoid becoming overwhelmed when approaching novel-length stories.

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It can be a daunting thought moving from the writing of short fiction to long fiction. And that you might be led to believe that you require event upon event to fill the word count. As a solution to this concern, I propose that, instead of moving from point to point, you concentrate on infilling beneath the path.

The difference between a short story and a novel isn’t the number of plot points or major events, and we don’t simply move through a series of increasingly smaller steps in the climb up and down the story arc.

Try to visualise short fiction moving in one sweep, filling a measured depth below the surface of the arc (or path of whichever design). How do we get from here to long fiction? It might seem like we need to increase the number of plot points. But if a short story has, for example, four plot points, does a novel twenty times its length have twenty times as many plot points? That would be unmanageable.

Perhaps a novel fills itself out with sub-points, moving at tortoise speed through a syrup of minor events. But to think of all these minor happenings soon becomes exhausting for the writer, and tiring for the reader to follow.

I want you to think instead of long fiction moving from plot point to plot point by infilling the ground beneath the arc with chapters, observing a single movement in each transition but taking time to build the foundations for this movement.

© 2019 Anthony Levings / Used With Permission

By visualising in this way, we can divide the task of writing the novel into more containable sections than if we were to set out to write a novel of 50,000+ words that sought to simply arrive at the plot points one by one.

Once you have a story, and these plot points in your mind, start work on writing the chapters that infill, taking time on relationships, interactions, and actions without thinking too deeply about the overall arc, concentrating instead on how you take the reader from your starting position to the next plot point.

Breaking the task of writing the novel down in this way should make things easier. Rather than trying to tackle each chapter by seeing it as only a step along the entire arc, you will have more time to build texture and think about characters rather than battling ahead to see how you are going to keep heading towards the end step by step, trudging up an endless mountain.

The thing missing from most diagrams of the story arc, or the visual plotting that can be found of specific texts, is what happens beneath the line. Not to take anything away from short fiction, but it doesn’t require us to dig too deep, whereas in long fiction the entire arc needs filling. As illustrated in the figure above, chapters might leave spaces and have overlaps between plot sections, and there might be fewer chapters than in the illustration, along with more or less plot points. This is the nature of fiction: it is a messy and inexact thing to write, and it is also the reason we create theoretical tools to help us streamline and accelerate to a more orderly point.

When you start reflecting on how to tease out a single movement with substantial groundwork, you will find yourself absorbed in creating character relationships and dialogue, alongside actions that each contribute to the plausibility (or absurdity, if you that’s your style) of the plot points you will be placing in front of the reader. As a bonus, the separation and division of the work this enables means that once you are satisfied with the first movement, you can then move to the next, and so on. This is the ideal scenario at least, but I accept that writing involves many rewrites and redrafts to even arrive at the initial story and plot. My more realistic hope is that if you keep coming back to this approach, your path of progress will be (re)clarified, and you will feel excited about your inventions and innovations rather feeling like you are on a long trek, squeezing out yet another paragraph, simply to arrive at a magical number of words that will enable you to attach the label ‘novel’ to your story.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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