The Short and Long of It

A friend and fellow writer made an offhand comment in the writing/accountability group we both belong to, as he was talking about his writing progress. Short stories are harder than novels, he said. I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I’ve had repeated attempts at shorts derail themselves in an attempt to go long, very long. Writing an effective short story requires so much, in such a small arc, that it’s difficult to compress.

I was listening to a podcast the other day about, among many, many other things (and it’s an excellent episode, I highly recommend it, called Frittering Away Genius), the compression of video, and what makes this possible. It’s the diffs.

What’s the diff? Well, in this case, it’s the differences between one frame and another in a movie. The less diff, the more it can be compressed. It’s when, the host explained, you have a lot of jump shots and rapid action, it becomes harder and slower to compress it. Which, as I was contemplating the problem of writing short, really came back to me.

Part of how you can compress an entire world into a short story is to have as few differences from the reader expectation as possible. And when you do have, make them count. Tropes exist for a reason – we know and understand them. They are shorthand, which the reader can mentally unpack, making your story bigger than it actually is, in the mind of the reader. Rather than taking the time to explain every little thing, just slide it in, and see what happens.

The jump cut applies to shorts, too. You can’t have too many places, too many people, in a short story and have it work effectively. Which, as I say this, I’m certain that someone will come up with an example. As a rule of thumb, thought, shorts are necessarily limited in scope. Which also means action – you aren’t going to be able to pack multiple action scenes, even with spare description that you have pared down to the essentials, into a short story. Pick one, and run with it, unless you have the luxury of a longer structure – ten thousand or more words. Keep in mind that the film analogy plays out here, too. A feature length film is, more or less, a novella worth of material. Which is why the book is always better than the movie. You have to seriously truncate a novel to cram it into one movie.

And now I’m going to wander off to get ready for work, and leave it up to you all. How do you like a short story? What are some of your favorites?

11 comments

  1. The ideas for short stories need to be less STICKY than the ones for a novel. A novel needs more variety. Also, one idea can not really carry it all. But a short short needs to be as sticky as a ball bearing — it can stand utterly alone.

    The range between is filled by increasing stickiness.

  2. A story is like a window into another world. A novel is like a plate glass window in a diner, showing the whole street and halfway down the block. A short story is a smaller window, but the world it looks out on can be just as rich and exciting as the world seen through a glass wall.

    You just don’t get to see as much of it. And that can be a very powerful thing in itself. In a story like Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” the reader is left with a sense of wonder from all the things that Dick Jarvis didn’t get a closer look at. That feeling that absolutely anything could be over the next hill is hard to maintain for a hundred thousand words.

    I find it useful to start a short story with the understanding that I am not going to show my readers the whole picture. I’ll show them only what they can see through the window, and they’ll have to imagine the rest.

  3. Some times I write short, rather to my surprise, that with editing I can get it down into the short story range. I still have no grasp of the plot requirements and so forth. I can’t set out to write that length and get anything interesting at all.

    Waaay back in the paleolithic, in my teens, I’d read the complied Hugo Winners. A Pail of Air, A Dog and His Boy. And who hasn’t read Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories . . . I still prefer both to read and write longer works.

  4. I’ve been trying to do shorts, but they’re hard for me. Very few ideas show up that aren’t at least novella length. I’ve tried dealing myself a Dixit card every few days, but that hasn’t worked. I know the skill can be learned, but I think I need something like Sarah Hoyt’s old writing group where she managed to train short story ideas to show up every Saturday morning at 10am.

  5. The Pit and the Pendulum is a series of action scenes.

    (Just because somebody has to step up and be the pendant.)

  6. Oddly, short started to make sense when I started to do verbal story telling. The audience let’s you know when you’re running too long and you cut on the fly. I also grew up on a diet of fairy tales, myths, and just so stories. The problem I have is that shorts are told… novel are written (at least in my head). I have very little trouble keeping stories short when I tell them out loud even if I’m alone. Keeping them short when my fingers get involved… that’s tge trick!

  7. As a reader, I think that short stories can be some of the most brilliant works the field has ever seen. But we don’t see a lot of them, because of changes in markets (although Amazon may be changing things).

    The field began in the magazines — and they were mostly filled with shorter works (a novel needed several issues, and a novella filled much of the space in a single issue, whereas there were lots of slots for short stories). So authors wrote, and sold, lots of short stories.

    And, for some authors, the shorter length was perfect for them. It meant that they could concentrate on the essence of the story, and strip out anything that wasn’t needed. So you ended up with works like Clarke’s “The Star” — one of the most brilliant works our field has ever seen.

    And, for my personal favorite, you had Fredric Brown — the closest our field has ever come to O. Henry. While he has some wonderful novels (although, at novel length, he was probably more comfortable writing mysteries, which he also wrote brilliantly), his best SFF work was still at short length, or even short short length. He wrote dozens of stories in the 1-5 page length, and there was nothing there but a pure story (often with wonderful wordplay). And yes — he often tried to not have differences from expectations — until the end of the story, when he broke the expectations brilliantly. (Disclaimer — I edited the collection of his complete shorter works, so I can’t claim to be disinterested, but I only did it to get his work back into print.)

    But the commercial market meant that short stories didn’t make enough money, so people stopped writing them. I miss them.

  8. I don’t like short stories. I rarely read them because I’m always dissatisfied. If the story is any good, there should be more! Otherwise, why am I wasting my time?
    I can’t write very short either.

    1. I agree, except for the word “waste” . I don’t find it a waste of my time, but it is frustrating to get wrapped up in a world for a mere 30 minutes. I want hours, days, or weeks! I’ve read Richard Bach’s Illusions so many times that it takes (“took”? haven’t re-read it in years) less than an hour to read it, so it has almost transformed into a short story.
      There are some notable exceptions. Nine Billion Names of God and Sarah’s John Lennon story (the title has something to do with purple bananas, I think) come to mind.

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