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The Art of the Short Story

When I first joined an online critique group, one of the readers commented that I seemed to be trying to do too much in my short stories. I was dealing with the Fate of the World, the Future of Mankind, and escalated armed conflicts, and I was trying to do it all within 4000 words.

He was right.

It has often been said that short stories are an entirely different beast from novels, that different literary rules apply, and that writing short stories is therefore not as good a way to prepare for novel-writing as, well, writing novels is. There is much truth in this, I think.

Certainly I have a tendency to write mini-novels rather than literary shorts. ("Backlash" is a typical example of this.) And I love them. I love action, and space battles, and Total Calamity averted just in the nick of time by the Heroic Feats of the Protagonist.

But when I think about the stories I consider truly moving; the ones that seem to me to actually mean something, that take some broken aspect of human existence and hold it up to the light that we may better examine it...

Flowers for Algernon
Bethan's Garden
Jaiden's Weaver

They all deal in small things. A man's intellect. A child's development. A colonist's pet.

I sometimes think that true mastery in writing comes, not from tearing down and rebuilding the cosmos, but from writing about a tiny conflict with such deftness that the reader is forced to weep at the death of an insect. This is a skill that I have attempted to emulate -- and which turned out pretty well in "Movement", I think, although some of my other attempts have fallen short.

Not that I'm going to give up writing about sorcerers and space battles anytime soon, mind you. It just seems to me that those grandiose, world-shattering adventure stories might pack more oomph if I can just learn to render them with the same finesse that is required of a good short story.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 22nd, 2010 11:34 am (UTC)
I think the story size picks itself when you consider the size of the idea that drives it. A long story about a small idea feels slow and boring. A short story about a bigger idea feels rushed and incomplete, or even incomprehensible.

I think both big and small ideas have unique challenges. One thing I notice in the world-shattering ideas of SF, authors often maintain good connection with the characters for the first half of the book, but lose themselves in their big ideas later, lose emotional connection with the characters, use too many characters to begin with, and jump between them to suit the plot, not the character. In small ideas, you often need to work hard to lift the plot from the level of domesticity and add extra quality to this that are often commonplace and/or very limited in their sphere of action.

I think the two are very different, but if you apply the skil you develop as 'samll picture' writer on a big picture... that is the part where you write prize-winning novels.
Nov. 22nd, 2010 01:07 pm (UTC)
>>A long story about a small idea feels slow and boring. A short
>>story about a bigger idea feels rushed and incomplete, or even

I think you've nailed it, here.

Come to think of it, Monica Wood said something related in the Writers' Digest book "Description": the more mundane the subject matter is, the more room the prose has to provide depth and interest. As speculative fiction writers, we often complain about "purple prose", but the fact is, purple prose has its time and uses.
Nov. 22nd, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
A notable thing about the subgenre sword-n-sorcery is that it manages a lot of derring-do in short-story lengths. And while tales such as Lieber's "Bazaar of the Bizarre" are unlikely to shed new light on anyone's perception of humanity, it is nonetheless a highly entertaining story that sticks with the reader for years.

It's all about learning what the story needs, as mikandra said above.
Nov. 23rd, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
That's a really excellent point, and just what I needed to hear for the story I'm currently working on now. Thanks!
Nov. 23rd, 2010 09:23 am (UTC)
Pleased to be of service. :)
Nov. 23rd, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
Yep. That's it exactly.

I'm more of a short story writer by nature... My issues come when I try to apply that same logic to a longer story arc.
Nov. 24th, 2010 05:15 am (UTC)
Marcel Proust invested meaning in a tea cup while Issac Asimov used a galaxy wide empire. Ironically, Proust's tea cup enlightenment was in a novel 2600 pages long while Asimov's original trilogy could be read in a day.
Nov. 26th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
I really like stories that are localized to just a few people, and yet have a hard time actually writing them; my conflicts are always spiraling larger. I don't know why that is. O.o
Nov. 28th, 2010 02:19 am (UTC)
This was a great post but I definitely think writing short stories is a wonderful way to hone one's skills before tackling a novel, at least from my own experience.

Before I published my first paranormal mystery novel, Testing the Prisoner, I wrote SF fan fiction for about 8 years. As time went on, I went from 3,000-4,000 word shorts to 12,000-20,000 words and by then I started outlining them first. That's when I really learned how to start developing stories with enough breadth and depth (and length) for a novel.

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )




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