UPDATE: I did NOT forget to grade your homework, but I think you’re going to prefer I do that in the morning. It’s been a long and tiring day.
(Oh, please! Take your mind out of the gutter, do. Go ahead and look at the heading. See, Sarah, not Kate. You’re safe, my precious. Mostly.)
If you’re a natural novel writer, or simply a not very experienced writer, you might not have realized that there is a difference between ideas for novels and ideas for short stories.
Or at least, you might never have given it much thought.
Some of the worst stuff I did to poor innocent stories when I was starting out, was to cram a novel idea into a short story. (Or a trilogy idea into a novel, but that’s something else yet again.)
So in this episode of our rousing workshop, we’re going to learn to distinguish between short story ideas and novel ideas, so we don’t either stick a story in a way too short space or start what we think is a nvoel only to have it die after ten pages.
So, how do you tell the two apart?
Okay, fine, that was the honest answer, not the detailed one.
The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to give you hard and fast rules on what constitutes a short story idea and what constitutes a novel idea. I’m going to give you several rules of thumb that were given me, which might serve as tools to start evaluating your idea – but none of them is absolute in itself, so don’t go making dogmatic decisions based on a single one of them.
For instance, a short story usually takes place over a shorter unit of time than a novel. But this is not necessarily true. I’m sure we all have read novels that took place in twenty four hours or less. And my early novels all tended to take place in less than a week, while the short story Thirst took place over centuries.
The next rule of thumb is that a short story is usually “a day in the life” and might concentrate on a central, pivotal moment, but it’s not a life-changing moment, just a mind changing moment or something like that. Of course, if that’s the case, they Cold Equations is not a short story.
Then there is the “Weight” rule, in which a novel deals with weightier subjects. In my experience this rule is exactly reversed. A short story can deal with much more serious subjects and, by not weighing them down with local color; by not diluting them with incidentals, the story is that much “punchier.”
As I said, all those rules are imperfect. In my opinion the one rule that works is that a short story is capable of a much greater unity of voice/theme/presentation. Think of it as a super-concentrated flavor. While a novel has a much more diffuse, lengthy view of something. It’s deeper, but it might have less impact.
You can write a novel about the American revolution, set in the future. There will be contretemps, set backs, and that awful winter at Valley Forge.
Or you can write a short story either set in the equivalent of Valley forge or the future equivalent of crossing the Delaware. You can give us the ups and downs in a paragraph or two, but for the short story to be a short story, not a news report, you’re going to have to concentrate on one event only, and on a theme of loss or win, only.
You can write a novel about a complex marriage, with ups and downs. Or you can write a short story about someone finding out his/her spouse cheated on him/her and decide what to do with his/her life.
You can write a novel about a quest for a magical artifact, or you can write a short story about the final battle and /winning/losing the artifact.
A novel is the bedroom light going on, and a short story is the tight beam of your bedside table lamp.
If you feel up to doing an exercise this week, give me two ideas in novel and in short story mode.
Next week we shall dwell upon the various ways of structuring a story to make sure it has the impact it should have. Novels are way more forgiving, but short stories, as I said, have to be tightly focused. So plotting is a little more important than in novels. (and it’s important enough in novels!)