11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?

by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.




32 comments:

janice law said...

A good piece. I'm not sure that your mom would still be right that novels are a surer way to make money than short stories, alas!

Paul D. Marks said...

Really enjoyed this, B.K. And it's interesting to see the differing viewpoints of the various writers, but I guess that's what makes horse races and novels and short stories. I think the bottom line for whatever form though is just to tell a good tale and hopefully be entertaining about it.

Michael Bracken said...

I've written so many short stories and so few novels that my inclination these days is to turn any idea into a short story. A few ideas have enough heft to justify 8,000-10,000 words, but most of my stories need less than 5,000 words.

Eve Fisher said...

BK, your mother sounds a lot like mine... Although, actually it was my father who said, when I finally got a story published in AHMM, "I thought you'd given up on writing." Sigh. But they were proud of me.

I'm considering trying to turn a short story of mine into a novel myself. And I am petrified at the thought, because my other 2 attempts at novels were pretty bad. But, who knows? Maybe I've learned something over the years...

B.K. Stevens said...

Janice, that's a good point, especially since publishers expect writers to spend money to promote their novels. Ads, bookmarks, pens or pencils or other giveaways, maybe a conference or two--the tiny royalty checks don't last long.

B.K. Stevens said...

Glad you enjoyed the piece, Paul, and I agree with you about the bottom line. In a way, the variety of expert opinions is reassuring--no matter what approach one takes, there's a well-regarded author who endorses it.

B.K. Stevens said...

I love writing short stories too, Michael--like Lawrence Block, I think I get more "sheer enjoyment" from writing them than from writing anything else. I seem to have a natural tendency to write longer stories, though--many (maybe most) of my stories for AHMM fall into the novella-length range.

B.K. Stevens said...

Eve, I think my mother was proud of me, too. When we went through her house after she passed away, we found that she'd saved every story I'd ever given her. Another relative, though--and maybe I'd better not identify her in more specific terms--could be a lot harsher. Whenever I said that I had a new story in AHMM, she'd say something such as, "Does anyone actually read that magazine? I never see it for sale anywhere." or "Do you have to pay them to publish your stories? How much do they charge you?" No matter how often I answered her questions,she kept finding new ways to say essentially the same things. Long ago, I stopped telling her anything about my writing. Visits got pleasanter then.

I hope you do turn that story into a novel. Maybe, some day, we can compare our experiences.

Robin said...

i am intimidated by short stories. When I write, I go where the story takes me. In order to keep a short story both short and worth the read, I think I would have to have a complete outline before getting started. That doesn't seem like fun, and I want to keep writing fun. I already have to do enough content creation - which is nowhere near as fun as writing mysteries.

GBPool said...

I'm glad those writers disagree. How boring it would be if all writers wrote the same way and thought the same way. Since I write both short stories and novels, and even teach a class on The Anatomy of a Short Story, I have my opinion. Mine happens to be what Aristotle said in The Poetics. Stories (long and short) have five basic elements: plot, character, dialogue, setting, and the meaning of the story. Short stories just don't take as many detours getting to their destination. As for turning your short story into a novel, if you have more to say in the story it will make a great novel. Interesting and thought provoking post, Bk.

Elizabeth said...

Our mothers are/were "ladies of a certain age" ... mine refused to read the first short story I had published because it contained the "F" word. Actually I don't think she has read any of my fiction at all.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for your comment, Robin. I think it provides more evidence that different writers have different inclinations and take different approaches. Just as some writers prefer one length or another, some find outlining an enjoyable challenge in itself, and some find it a chore. I outline for both stories and novels but feel free to depart from the outline if new possibilities occur to me as I'm writing. That approach seems to work best for me, but I'm sure many others would hate it.

B.K. Stevens said...

I found the disagreements interesting, too, Gayle, and I thought some of the opinions (Gardner's and Bowen's, for example) reflected the author's preference for one form or another. You should have also mentioned your book/workbook (also called Anatomy of a Short Story)--I think people thinking about experimenting with short stories would find it very helpful.

B.K. Stevens said...

Elizabeth, I think mothers (and fathers)often have trouble understanding and accepting the choices their children make. My own experiences as a mother have taught me that. It's hard not to think we know what's best for people we love so much, hard not to try to get them to do the things we think will make them happy.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Bonnie,

I'm very much impressed with your blog which deserves to be a university lecture. My mother was a lot like yours. When I handed her my first novel to read, she admitted neither liking nor understanding it. It was a literary work that I put away in a drawer. She was probably right. First novels are not usually our best work. However, we do learn from them. As to short stories vs. novels, for some of my short fiction I've earned more than from some of my novels. It all depends.

I tend to experiment more with short fiction than novels. I take chances with theme, point of view, character and even plot. I'm more traditional with novels. I don't respect one genre more than the other. They simply require different styles and needs. I enjoy writing both.




B.K. Stevens said...

Thank you, Jacquie. I enjoy experimenting with short stories, too, more than I do with novels. (Not that I'm any expert on novels--I've written a bunch, but published only two.) In particular, I've had fun with short-story protagonists who are deeply flawed, not very likable, or both. Readers might not want to put to put up with them through an entire novel--I might not, either--but it can be interesting to see what they do in a short story.

jrlindermuth said...

The lack of consensus by writers on short story vs. novel reminds me of Somerset Maugham's famous comment: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

B.K. Stevens said...

John, I love that comment, and I love Somerset Maugham. I went through a serious Somerset Maugham stage when I was in high school, reading Of Human Bondage (I decided--briefly--that it was my favorite novel of all time)and many of his short stories. More recently, I read The Summing Up and loved it. What a wonderful, down-to-earth writer!

Leigh Lundin said...

I'm a little surprised by Edith Wharton's observation, but she certainly made her characters come alive… even when they died.

I bet we have one (or perhaps two) SleuthSayers who make a living from short stories. It not only takes prolific writing, but also superb business skills. We can only admire.

B.K. Stevens said...

Leigh, I was surprised by some of Edith Wharton's comments, too. She seems almost to denigrate short stories, but today she's probably remembered more for her stories than for her novels. (That's just a guess--I have no proof.) And I can probably also guess one of the SleuthSayers you have in mind, but not the second. All I know for sure is that I'm not making a living from short stories. (Or from novels--not that I made much of a living from decades of adjunct teaching, either. Thank goodness my husband is gainfully employed.)

John Floyd said...

What a great post, Bonnie!! Like a couple of the other commenters, I enjoy writing shorts far more than novels, though I love reading both. Personally, I've read some short stories that I think would've made good novels and a lot of novels that I think should probably have been short stories instead.

Linda Cahill said...

Great Post thanks for sharing your thoughts on the differences between ideas for novels vs short stories. Bowen's and O'Connor's quotes were great.

B.K. Stevens said...

John, I've read quite a few novels that might have worked as short stories but definitely felt stretched thin as novels. And I think Art Taylor took an interesting approach by writing a series of linked stories for two characters begging to be developed in more depth.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, Linda. The post may have been too long--after I'd drafted it, I decided I should cut one of the authors but couldn't bring myself to leave any of them out. For example, I found Gardner's suggestion about working backwards from a climax really interesting--I may try that approach soon.

Georgia Ruth said...

Bonnie, your post was not too long. It was complete.

R.T. Lawton said...

Bonnie, a good thought provoking article. Interestingly enough, my March 26th blog coming up in two weeks will provide some of my own thoughts on short stories, novels and money. It's all in how you look at it, and everyone sees it different.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thank you, Georgia! I appreciate that. I thought there was an interesting range of opinions that connected or collided at several points.

B.K. Stevens said...

I'll watch for your March 29 post, R.T. Thanks for alerting us.

Carol D. said...

I remember the blue glass story. Nice allegory.

To me a story, any story deserving of the name, also deserves some form of characterization. Else it's just an anecdote.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, Carol--I'm glad you enjoyed the story. And I agree with you about characterization. Some stories are memorable for their plots more than their characters, but even then the story's likely to fall flat unless it has at least one character readers will find real and/or intriguing.

Leigh Lundin said...

Bonnie, thinking more about Wharton’s view, characterization is important to series short stories in a way that might not be critical to one-off writers and readers. Think how much we learned about Sherlock Holmes through Doyle’s short stories. I actually prefer Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter shorts to her novels, because her novels sometimes drag at times when tension should rise. The crackling little short-shorts John Floyd writes for Woman’s World manage to sneak in bits of character despite a dire word count. And damn Wharton anyway. I’m still crushed she killed off Lily Bart.

B.K. Stevens said...

Leigh, I think some of Wharton's own short stories show us how to develop memorable, fascinating characters in a relatively few pages. (I can't weigh in on Lily Bart because I've never read House of Mirth.) And you're right--John may set the record for creating delightful characters in record time. I can't quite agree about Sayers, though, because I love both her stories and her novels. The only one that seems to drag for me is Five Red Herrings--and I think that's her shortest.