Why short stories lashed together as novels don’t work

It seems to me that one of the main differences between a short story and a novel isn’t just scale; it’s perspective, which is why novels made up of lashed-together short stories with the same setting don’t always work very well. Let me explain.

Wright_Typewriter2A novel typically has the length to engage in a fairly in-depth story, with an involved plot and a clear character arc – or arcs, if it’s a multi-lead novel. Short stories, by contrast, typically focus on a single individual and often on a single thing that happens to them.

That’s what I mean by perspective. It doesn’t obviate the need to have some sort of character arc – the character has to learn something. But the “thing” that the character learns won’t be the way they develop in a novel. It might be a single event that gives them a single insight into themselves, or into how they see the world.

The point being that a string of short stories does not a novel make – unless they’ve been written, deliberately, to form a novel-length series of such snapshots, perhaps with an over-arching structure overall. To some extent The Wind In The Willows is of this variety – Kenneth Grahame actually wrote it as a series of letters to his son. Even then, though, the book has a stop-start aspect to it.

Just lashing stories up, though, doesn’t work so well. I’m thinking, among other things, of A E Van Vogt’s ‘fixup’ novels – The Voyage of the Space Beagle and The Silkie, particularly – in which he took loosely linked stories with the same setting and re-fashioned them into novel-length books.

I enjoyed both; but to me they also came across a bit like layer cakes with icing jammed between the pieces. In each case the original stories had been written with a broad over-arching arc; they still worked as stories in their own right, and the last tale effectively wrapped up the plot cycle. The same is true of Asimov’s first three Foundation novels. But to me none of them quite had the punch of a ‘purpose-built’ novel. I guess Van Vogt called his own version ‘fixups’ for a reason.

To my mind the better way – still using the SF genre as an example – was applied both by Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov; a themed series of short stories, each self-contained, that could be published as an anthology around a single theme. I’m thinking Asimov’s robot stories– and Clarke’s brilliantly funny Tales From the White Hart.

This last was genius: a single setting – a pub in which a lot of British sci-fi authors regularly met – where they were entertained by a slightly mysterious newcomer who regaled them with preposterous – and hilarious – tales of science and invention. They were all on a ‘setting reset’ switch with the exception of the last one, which brought the cycle to an end.

What emerged was novel length – but it wasn’t a novel, it retained the perspectives of a short story. And to me, if anybody did want to write a novel-length series of short stories, this is how to do it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


2 thoughts on “Why short stories lashed together as novels don’t work

  1. Sounds like I need to read Tales From the White Hart. I have always thought this might be an interesting vehicle to try. But, based on your post, it sounds like I need to rethink my options.

    1. It’s a fun book. Quintessential Clarke and classic English-style humour about his writing group (it has real sf writers in it, all his group of friends). Well worth the read.

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