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Talking back to snurri on sizing of fiction - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2006-07-06 19:53
Subject: Talking back to snurri on sizing of fiction
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
David Schwartz (a/k/a snurri) has taken some polite exception to a statement of mine about the differences between short fiction and novels, specifically:

I've written novel-sized plots in 5,000-word stories, and I'm happy to posit on the flip side that Rocket Science can be considered to be a 65,000-word short story


Schwartz goes on to remark:

The implication of talking about 5,000-word novel plots and 65,000-word short stories is that the one is generally a boiled-down version of the other; that short stories are condensed and novels are bloated. I'm simplifying, but that's how I read this post.


While I find his reading of my original comment to be reasonable given what I wrote, it wasn't my intention to assert that the essential difference between short fiction and novels was simply length. This is a much more complex problem, which can be broken into two portions.

The first portion is definitional -- a characterization of the forms themselves. This is the basis of award categories we all know and love, to wit, short story, novelette, novella, and novel. There's lots of room for variation in those categories depending on how you want to slice it. I'm pretty sure I've addressed this before, though I currently can't find the link, but to belabor the obvious, the wordcount boundaries which characterize the classic categories are arbitrary, quantitative descriptions which are embraced for the sake of simplicity. (And the sanity of award committees.)

It's more useful but far less precise to have a structural approach to analyzing the forms. For example, one can characterize flash fiction has emphasizing only a single element of the stereotypical Western story -- character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple solutions with increasing levels of risk and failure, before achieving resolution, followed by reader validation. A flash piece might begin, "The cop tripped over the body in the shadows behind the bar." There you have character, setting and problem in one sentence, albeit much presented by implication. A flash piece could approach this as an expansion on one of those elements, or as a craft piece, focusing on description, dialog or a specific kind of detail.

Moving this model forward, a short short (let's say quantitatively falling between 1,000 and 7,500 words) can expand from the single-element approach of flash to encompass an entire story arc. Typically at this length the arc will not include subplots, feature only a single protagonist, and so forth. (I am keenly aware that exceptions abound, I'm merely staking a position here, not emitting my concept of Received Wisdom.)

Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words) introduce multiple plot arcs, subplots, strong secondary characters and even multiple protagonists. Digressions begin to appear, alarums and excusrions propagate. And so the complexity continues up the scale through novellas (17,500-40,000), short novels (40,000-65,000), novels (65,000-125,000) and long novels (125,000+).

The key here is an expanding sense of structure. Flash is almost by definition a one-trick pony, a trickling stream of narrative. Short stories expand on that, novelettes widen it further to a river, until you get the oceans of novel. (Likewise the scope and scale of the ideas that drive the story often expand, though certainly novels have been written about buying shoes or dunking a pastry in a cup of coffee.)

I don't think anything here should be surprising to anyone. We all subscribe to a quantitative categorization because there's no other simple, shorthand approach to talking about our output. These word count-based definitions have marketing significance and they have critical significance, and so we live with them.

Here's where I inadvertently created confusion, and thus sparked some portion of snurri's remarks. What I meant by "novel-sized plots" was something on the order of "stories of broad scope and scale with multiple protagonists, subplots and secondary characters playing significant roles." Not "long stuff boiled down."

It's easier to examine at the other end of the scale. Look at Rocket Science. There's a single POV working in a short, linear timescale with a fairly abbreviated cast of characters. He has multiple try/fail cycles, but the arc of the book is a single curve of rising action which reaches a climax. That's what I meant by "65,000-word short story." There's enough material there to make it be a book -- the plot becomes inordinately complex in the final act of the narrative, in fact -- but structurally it's highly reduced, without the intricacies and flourishes which characterize many if not most genre novels. This simplified structure was sometimes seen in the classic juveniles from a few generations ago, though it seems to be rather rare now. (Feel free to correct that assertion in comments.)

One can do the reverse as well, packing big ideas, complexity and flourishes into relatively few words. This isn't terribly common, because to do novel-sized plots usually requires novel-sized word count, but it is quite possible. The key isn't the word count per se, at any point on the scale, the key is the structural complexity and idea sizing.

All that being said, I find it curious that within my own writing process I am usually very aware of my likely final word count when I'm writing a story. (I haven't written enough novels to be sure there...ask me in two years.) This is a function of story sizing, the shape it occupies in my head, and may be indirectly connected to my concept of "span of control."

As for the issue of people being naturally novelists or short story writers, I suppose it depends on the prolixity or laconicity of one's natural voice. If a writer's ideas come out of the chute with ramifications pre-installed, it's a hell of a job to pack them into 4,000 words (apparently a near-magical length for short stories). If a writer's ideas get built up from seeds, then working in short fiction might be a natural launching pad.

What do the quantitative categories of fiction mean to you? Are they relevant? Do you have a better model than this to talk about length?
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2006-07-07 04:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The bottom line for me is that the difference between a novel and a short story is not size but complexity.

When I get an idea, I generally know almost immediately how big it is. My brain, as I've said before, is plot-focused, and whether I start with an idea or a setting or a problem (or even, as almost never happens for me, a character) the very next thing I understand about the story is usually the ending. From which I can usually feel the size of the story in between -- how much stuff has to happen between the start and the end in order for the end to be satisfying. And even though the ending I actually reach at the end of the first draft is not always the ending I thought I was shooting for, I find that I'm often pretty accurate on the estimated size.

A novel-sized idea is one where the ending requires a complex coming-together of diverse elements and characters, or one that requires a long build-up. Putting a novel-sized ending on a short story doesn't work except for humorous effect. ("...and then Saturn crashed into the Earth! 'Foof!' she said. 'Methane!'")

Similarly, a short-story-sized idea is one where the beginning and the ending can be connected by a line with only one or two kinks in it. If the connection is a straight line, the idea is too simple to be even a short story and it requires more complexity.

A novella-sized idea (I've had a few of those) is one that seems to require several fully-realized characters, or one where the setting is important and has to be fleshed out in considerable detail, but the plot isn't complex enough to justify novel length.

I've never written flash, but I imagine if I ever did have a flash-sized idea I would be able to tell because it would be one in which one or two of the three major aspects of the story (character, plot, situation) are so familiar that they can be evoked via suggestion, but the remaining aspect(s) are strong enough to hold up the story by themselves.

I consider myself to be a natural short-story writer. I've written one novel and I found it enough of a chore that I haven't started the second one yet, more than a year after finishing the first. (I keep promising myself that I will start any day now.) But I do have a small herd of novel-sized ideas perking around the back of my head, some of which I am telling to lie back down again until I have more chops.
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A large duck
User: burger_eater
Date: 2006-07-07 15:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like your concept of "idea sizing," but I'd like to express it in terms of data.

You could write an entire novel about a single family dinner, if you were so inclined. All you would need would be to describe the event in tiny detail. Alternately, you could write the dinner this way: Dinner was a disaster, as usual. Driving home afterwards, Jennifer decided to accept the transfer to Singapore. The only question that remain was whether she would tell her parents before she left or simply send them a pretty postcard once she arrived.

How much raw data does the story actually require? How much would make it enjoyable? That's the major dif, IMO.
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David J. Schwartz
User: snurri
Date: 2006-07-07 15:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's more useful but far less precise to have a structural approach to analyzing the forms.

I agree; it's difficult to pin down the structural differences in a meaningful way.

I can't say that I have that precise an awareness of what my word counts will be from the beginning. I have noticed, however, while at times I have mistaken a short story idea for a novel idea, I've never done the reverse. There's a heft to a novel that I find hard to describe, which was part of my reason for writing that post.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-07 15:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I get your 'heft', believe me. I guess my original point was that short stories can sometimes have that same heft, which is what makes them feel novel-sized to me.
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David J. Schwartz
User: snurri
Date: 2006-07-07 15:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree. Seems like that's the whole idea behind Twenty Epics, for example.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2006-07-12 17:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
NOVEL, n. A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount to such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes -- some of which have a large sale. (The Devil's Dictionary, of course.)
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mlerules: bunny clock
User: mlerules
Date: 2011-03-14 15:08 (UTC)
Subject: 4.5 Years Later...
Keyword:bunny clock
If a writer's ideas come out of the chute with ramifications pre-installed, it's a hell of a job to pack them into 4,000 words (apparently a near-magical length for short stories). If a writer's ideas get built up from seeds, then working in short fiction might be a natural launching pad.

So, figuring perhaps this distinction may have relevance in difference 'tween say, Green</a> and Sunspin. Along w/way more [square bracketing along the way].
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2011-03-14 15:11 (UTC)
Subject: Re: 4.5 Years Later...
Also note that both projects started out as short fiction. Green was a novelette of the same title in Aeon magazine. Sunspin is already out in the world as six or seven short stories, novelettes and novellas published in various places.
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mlerules
User: mlerules
Date: 2011-03-14 15:40 (UTC)
Subject: Re: 4.5 Years Later...
Ah, this I had not realized...
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