Some of you may be wondering if I got turned around when writing the title of this piece. I did not. It doesn’t make sense, though, does it? Novels are long, short stories are . . . well, short. Novels have multiple characters (usually), short stories can work just fine with one. It’s easy to write a novel riddled with plot holes, while short stories are more manageable.
Despite all these things, when I sit down to write a new piece, I find myself more apprehensive about the idea of writing a short story (not just a short story, but a good short story) than embarking on a new novel. A novel doesn’t rush me. It gives me the time and room to feel out what the story is about. That’s right, sometimes I can write thousands of words and not yet know what it is that I’m really writing about. And that’s okay. I’ve read books published by some of your favorite authors that have hundreds of pages trying to find itself, and it’s not really a big deal.
Short stories . . . not so much. You know those long sentences that bog down a writer’s diction, or a presenter’s speech? A novel is like that. It takes little skill to ramble on and on and put all of your mind’s wanderings out there for the world to hear. But try turning a page into three sentences, or three minutes of verbosities into a 30-second spiel. It takes effort to transfer great meaning to small spaces. We all know this, elementary my dear Watson. And it doesn’t exactly apply to stories vs novels (a novel is just someone rambling? wtf) but it the same theme rings out: it’s harder to write something short.
I’m sure there are a number of novels out there that were originally intended to be short stories. Have you ever started one just to find you are well past your initially intended number of pages and not even close to being done? Discovered that you want to develop your main character more? Think of a new plot line you’re just itching to try out? Novels are easier to write because endings are hard. Especially endings that come so close to the beginning. In a story, a new universe–one totally from the mind of the author–begins on the first page and ends on the last. Which do you feel more comfortable creating a coherent universe within? 200 pages or 10?
Short stories are like a message in a bottle. They are a world’s worth of adventure wrapped up in a small package. Either they can sufficiently tell the lucky finder where to discover said adventures, or all meaning and intention can be washed away, lost to the waves. To me, short stories are about taking whatever genre you’re working in, whatever morals your trying to portray, whatever commentary you have on existence and concentrating it. Your work should add something to the genre. For example, in a love novel, the plot can be cliche and the characters flat, but I can still possibly be entertained by all the drama that will inevitably take place. In a short love story, you don’t have the room for all that. I expect the characters to replace the drama as core source of entertainment/insight.
I’d say character development holds the brunt of the difficulty difference between short- and novel-length stories. In a novel you have a lot of elbow-room to tell your character’s story. You can develop different quirks, provide background on various points in their past, and expose them at their most vulnerable. With short stories you are mostly limited to the present. What your character does in the here and now holds a lot more weight. You may not be able to go in to detail about how her father beat her as a child, but you can show her reaction to situations of confrontation, or overbearing men. In a short story, every action, every piece of dialogue, should serve a specific purpose toward your end result. Your job is to take the main character through some kind of significant and intriguing change. Thing is, you’re working on limited space, and every bit counts.
We can’t ignore that novels can take a ridiculously longer time to write/edit/rewrite/edit again, or that short stories may more easily get away with ‘breaking’ some literary rules. Technically, short stories may be less difficult to construct, but I stand by my idea that writing a good short story is harder than writing an equally good novel.
But I am only one person. Your thoughts?