Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: The Long & Short of It
This entry sponsored by my short story collection, The Carnival Papers, available now for $8.99 in paperback or only 99 cents on Kindle on Amazon! Incidentally, the paperback version features a bonus story and updated revisions, which makes it different than the Kindle version. I’m just saying.
Anyway, my Amazon Friend Ethan Cooper mentioned that Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely was actually made up of three short stories. We’re in agreement that making a novel from short stories has to be pretty tough. On the surface it might seem easy–you just put one after the other, right?–but it’s not. At least if you want to make a coherent story.
This seemed like a good time then to go over the difference between novels and short stories. In my opinion, which really means shit to the rest of the world, the big difference between them is scope. Effective short stories are like novels, only smaller. By smaller I don’t mean they use smaller sheets of paper or smaller words or anything goofy like that. I mean that the scope of a novel is different.
In my book of short stories, what I did was focus each story on one event. There’s a couple where a girl over one day discovers a nasty truth about the world–and herself. There’s another about the night a woman runs away from her abusive husband. The bonus story involves one day of a man’s trip to Toronto, where some interesting stuff happens.
This is because short stories are supposed to be SHORT. So you can’t effectively cover someone’s entire life. It’s hard to even cover an entire summer in one short story. The reason, which should be obvious, is that you can’t develop full scenes or characters for weeks or months and keep it under 10,000 words. (Or 5,000 words, which is a more reasonable maximum.) So if you try to cram an entire life into one short story, it’s going to wind up as a lot of telling instead of showing, which as you all know is a no-no. (Unless you’re already famous.)
In a novel you have 10-20 times that amount of room to work with, so you can develop weeks, months, and years far more effectively. If you’re suicidal like me you can take 180,000 words to go through the first 35 years of a man’s life. That’s the sort of freedom you don’t have in the short story, where words are at a premium.
Conveying a meaningful story in a small number of words is a challenge for any writer. That’s part of what makes the Chandler situation so interesting. Getting three stories to fit together to make a coherent novel is like putting together a 100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. But at least to Mr. Cooper it works. (I haven’t read the stories or novel yet, though I think the stories are coming up in my book of Chandler’s short stories.) It’s hard for most of us to do that because we either think in broad strokes–the novel–or in smaller ones–the short story. Then of course you have James Joyce, who in Dubliners writes short stories focusing on small moments while in Ulysses writes a sprawling novel covering just one day.
Like everything in writing, there’s no right or wrong way to do a story. You just have to make sure you don’t try to paint a picture too large or too small for you canvas. That can be the difficult part.
Since we’re speaking of short stories, tomorrow I’m going to flog the hell out of the Second Crusader Challenge, which was a writing prompt requiring you to start with four words: The goldfish bowl teetered. Oooh, that’s a toughy. And Sunday is the conclusion of the Worst Book Ever Tournament!