Novels vs. Short Stories

Each year at Christmas, I make a family newsletter that I mail out to my siblings and parents. Most of it is a series of (hopefully) amusing fake news stories based around funny pictures the family took over the last year, but the centerpiece has always been a short story I write just for the newsletter. And so each year, when Thanksgiving rolls around, I begin to wonder what in the world I’ll write about this year.

The thing is, I don’t do short fiction. I wrote some short stories in college, sure. But when it comes time to write a narrative, I almost always end up writing a novel. I’ve done it too much. Sort of like how Fezzik in the Princess Bride has trouble with the Man in Black. I’m used to one form, and switching to a different one can throw me for a loop.

But what is it exactly that makes the process so different? I thought I might take a moment and pick that apart some.

Speed is a huge factor. With a novel, there’s all this open space and time that you can develop characters and conflicts. A short story is so tightly packed, it’s hard for me to get the momentum I need for it to take off. I start with a central idea. (This year’s was “What if Hell was being forced to listen to the same Christmas song over and over and over, for eternity?) And that seems like an amusing enough idea, but as soon as I start to examine it for narrative, I start asking questions. How is that implemented? Who picks the song? What else is Hell like? And that’s not even addressing the characters in the story, their backgrounds, etc.

By the time I have the story up and running, I’m already out of space.

Conflicts in a short story also tend to be different than conflicts in a novel. For one thing, there’s generally just one. I’m no good at sticking to just one conflict. The thing is, in a novel, I want to start off by creating conflicts. Lots of them. I want to introduce multiple areas of tension, and so I have a lot of practice doing that. Making things worse. Taking a single idea and riffing on it. I have little experience taking one idea and just staying laser focused on that one idea.

But probably the biggest problem I have with short fiction is that I don’t read it. I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with it, seeing where other people succeed and where they fail. And that lack of experience really shows.

Of course, on the flip side, I now have ten complete short stories, all on a Christmas theme. So maybe I’m slowly building up expertise in one single, very narrow sub-slice of short fiction: the holiday story.

Anyway. This year’s is now done, and I’m quite happy with how it turned out. Maybe I should turn them all into a short story collection sometime. A thought for the future. In the meantime, I’m out of time for today. Thanks for reading, and catch you tomorrow!

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