One of the biggest pitfalls when writing fiction is the notion that all fiction is fiction. If you can write short stories, you can write novels. Right? Actually…no.
Yes, authors can do both – and often brilliantly. Look at Ernest Hemingway, one of my favourite authors. Or Isaac Asimov. Or Arthur C. Clarke.
But this isn’t because the skill set is the same. To the contrary – it isn’t. The reason these authors – and many others – shone in both fields is because they had mastered both forms. And they are very different forms. It’s like this…
1. Novels – lengthy works of fiction, usually 50,000+ words, tracing a significant ‘character arc’ for one or more major characters, through a plot with a defined introduction, exposition, pivot-points and conclusion. There is room for reasonable exposition, description and complexities of both character and plot.
2. Short stories – short fiction pieces of typically less than 5000 words and often as little as 500 – or less – which typically present a ‘snapshot’ – perhaps a single challenge for a single character –resolving with a single moment of revelation. Often they end with a humourous twist, a ‘payoff line’ that either explains or resolves a conundrum. The master of those, to my mind, was Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
These demand not just different structure but also different pacing. I recall one author – who was experienced at short stories – complaining that her first novel turned out like a lot of short stories jammed together. Well, obviously…
Want to write both? The first step is understanding that difference. The second – and there’s no way around this – is practice. Don’t think it’s easier to practice writing short stories because they are shorter. It’s not. They’re probably harder, because the key is what you leave out – not what you put in. Be prepared to work on them and throw away material. The snappier the better.
To my mind Ernest Hemingway was probably the master at it – though his famous ‘baby shoes’ six-worder is probably an apocryphal attribution. Not read it? Here it is:
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
I suppose we might call it ultra-flash fiction. Sharp, quick, poignant – and thought provoking. Which, really, is the key to any short story.
Do you write short stories and novels? What challenges have you faced?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
Coming up: More writing tips, fun science, opinion and humour. Check it out.