Short Story is a Diamond, Novel a String of Pearls (hopefully)

Hello everyone within the sound of my voice. Do you understand that the short story form is at absolutely the other end of the spectrum from the novel? I am and have always been a long-distance writer. Early on, I learned that when starting a short story--thinking it so--that it'd always turn into chapter one, that there was more and more and more to come for this set of characters. The short story eluded me for years, but now I feell I have a handle on it. Secrets REVEALED here now for you coming out of hard-won experience. Others are more comfortable with short stories and can't seem to break into the novel length story. So what are the chief differences sicne we all know the similarities--such as both require imagination and determination. The short story is like a diamond because everything is condensed and crushed into a smalll space. If you are interested at all in creating such a diamond (either in the rough or perfectly cut), you should consider reading a lot of short stories and reading them as a writer asking questions of how the author managed to make this jewel. There are indeed some secrets and these are the elements in a short story you should be considering when you read one and when you sit down to write one. And they are very different and at odds with novel length writing. #1 - a short is short because it is confined to one geographical locaton (possibly two). Quite often things that happen outside this goegraphy are flashbacks--quick mind films from the main character...things that ocured before and in different locations, but our main character is still planted or seated inside that single geography, say the back of a town taxi wagon (Chekov's Misery). I just did a short story set entirely in first class cabin of a Quantas jet. Trust me, whether it is a closet or a basement, the back seat of a car or the trunk of a car, a single dark forest, a restroom or a restaurant, it is wise to keep your short to one geography, going "back" to other sets and characters in those sets in mind only. But doing it with a tight time frame and with as much dialouge as you can muster even in those other, lesser sets. In the novel, by comparison, we skip like a stone from one geographica location to another in the blink of a transition. We have many geographical sets in a novel, at least as many as there are characters, and our canvass of time is not going back so much as going forward in an ever forward-moving dynamo made of a mix of time and place and character, especially in a multiple point of view novel. #2 - a short is short because it is confined to a moment in time, and the briefer the better. It may be a week, even a month, but the real jewels are far tighter still. Unlike a novel that usually spans months, a year, at very least a week or two (although some are designed around hours), the ticking clock in a short story ticks down faster, typically than does the clock in a novel. Along with the tight geography in a short, time is compressed as well, adding to the gem, adding to that diamond look. Time is of essence in any story, long or short, even if it is a story set in a timeless place. In the novel, we can string time along a longer, less taut timeline; we have time later in the longer story to take up an issue, bring in additional settings, additional characters. Like a string of pearls, the novel is not "compressed" in the manner of the short, so that geography and time are expanded along with the number of words. Obviously a short story of 2500 words must be compressed far more so than a novel of 80,000 words, but to make the short happen, to create the gem, the numbers are ultimately so important that if ignored, the story gets out of hand and becomes a 7,500 word story which is far harder to sell, and or it becomes a novella at say 20,000 words. Things of a geographic nature need be controlled but so to does the element of time within the framework of a short story. #3 - a short is short because it confines the number of characters to a small, manageable number. Each time a new character is introduced in a novel, this helps expand the story; same is true in a short story, but too much expansion of geography and time are a detriment to the gem, and by extension, so is the increasing number of characters stepping in and out of your story. Minor chracters like stewardess or waiter or trash pick-up guy who does not figure heavily in the story are added with a single stroke, avoiding getting into too much detail, and main characters are kept to a minimum. Count on three fingers, OK four at the most. On one hand. By comparison the nature of the novel, episodic normally, going from beginnning to middle to end requires a panorama of places, a longer time frame, and many more major characters stepping in and out of the story, along with many more minor characters doing the same. The string of pearls in a novel amount to more detail in terms of geography (a courtroom in a Grisham novel can fill five pages), details of time (often a day one, day two or other diary is put into play either overtly or covertly), and details and descriptions of characters are surely given more time and space in the novel than in the short. Yes, many of what I say here ought to be obvious but to the confused young author trying to get a "handle" on the short story, which he or she thinks ought to be EASIER than writing a novel must learn that the short is often the HARDER task in many ways. It is the difference between doing an exquisite thumbnail sketch and a panoramic wall-sized mural. I am sure there are exceptions to all I have said here, and I am sure there are other elements of writing the short and the long work that I have not touched on here. However, these three key steps to writing the short and the short-short (say 500 word story) depend upon these elements and they are crucial to ninety-nine percent of all short fiction which purports to present a "truth" via the Graceful Lie we call fiction. Rob Walker (author of over forty novels)\ Chicago Tribune's stellar review Dec. 15th book section says of Rob's City of the Absent: "combines Twainian witticisms with Dickensean social concerns and the ghoulishness of Poe."

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Comment by Tim Wohlforth on January 15, 2008 at 1:21pm
I like the metaphor of a short story being a diamond and a novel a string of pearls. Dennis Lynds once said that a short story in a "singularity" and that thought has stuck with me. Viewed this way he felt some classic PI pulp novels are structurally really short stories. I have written some effective short stories that take place in one evening and one place. However, "The Masseuse" which was chosen for an MWA anthology and recently got short-listed by Otto Penbzler takes place in Oakland and in Seattle.

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