I sold my first novel in 1994 — it took three years for that first book to find its way to print, but that’s a topic for a different post. The sale itself came in ‘94. My first short fiction sale came seven years later, and in the intervening years I met many aspiring writers who had sold short stories but were still waiting for that first novel sale. They envied me my contracts with Tor. Some of them probably resented me just a little.
I was grateful for the novel sale — even from the small advance on that first book, and even with my agent at the time taking his 15% of that tiny advance, I still made way, way more on my one novel than some of those folks did on four, or five, or even six short story sales. But the truth is that as much as they envied me, I envied them even more. Because I believed at the time that selling a short story would legitimize me as a writer. I felt like a pretender, a guy who got lucky with his first book, but had yet to prove himself as an artist. A short story sale, I believed, would do that. Now, I have since learned that even a half dozen short fiction sales, more than a dozen published novels, and all the other trappings of professional writing are not enough to overcome entirely impostor syndrome. But that, too, is a topic for another post.
My point today, is that I still believe writing a successful short story to be the pinnacle of prose fiction achievement. I think that structuring a short story and executing that creative vision is the hardest thing I do as a writer. And though I am in the final stages of writing a novel, and I have several long projects waiting for me when this one is done, I would really like to chuck them all and work on another short.
In many respects, writing a short story and writing a novel would seem to be similar endeavors. Both need to have a strong beginning that includes a powerful hook; both need to build through the middle pages, ratcheting up the tension, and drawing the reader ever deeper into the tale; and both need to close with an effective and satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader thinking and that ties off crucial plot threads.
Yet, within those broad similarities lie stark and crucial differences. When it comes right down to it, writing a short story is a fundamentally unique challenge, as is writing a novel — just as writing an episodic television show is different writing a movie. (Assuming that the movie in question is not also episodic; do people still make movies that are not part of a larger franchise . . . ?)
Some of the differences between writing a short and a novel are obvious. Short stories tend to focus on a smaller cast of characters, they tend to have only one or two point of view characters, they have more compact story arcs, and at times will have only a short section of an arc that hints at events that have come before or will come after. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but (to use an artistic metaphor) shorter fiction tends to be rendered in broader strokes. With a novel, the writer can use a finer literary brush to fill in small details and portray every aspect of a narrative thread. But when working under a tight word limit, the fine strokes need to give way to more impressionistic writing, using fewer details and less specificity to suggest contour and shape rather than finely drawn texture.
Let me give an example that I have referred to before in a different context. I see the Hunger Games novels as the literary progeny of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery.” The Hunger Games, book one of Suzanne Collins series, begins with a lottery that has a similar feel to the one in Jackson’s story. But because Collins is writing novels, she gives us background on the Hunger Games lottery, she shows us the consequences of it, she fits it into a larger dystopian world that she has created, and she follows the story through two more books so that we begin to see that world unravel.
Jackson does none of that. She shows us a single morning — the morning of the Lottery. She conveys the trepidation it brings, she hints at traditions, at a larger purpose beyond the concerns of this single day. But in the end what makes the story work so well is the mystery of it all, the very fact that she does NOT take the time to explain background or purpose or even larger consequence. Her story arc is abbreviated, but it is no less powerful for its brevity.
This is the essence of writing a compelling short story: taking a situation, a moment in time, and giving it narrative structure so that it becomes something greater and more meaningful, something that feels complete. It is what I strive to do with my short fiction. When writing a short piece, I know that I can’t explain everything about my world or my characters or even my magic system. So I tell my readers the bare minimum of what they need to know and I try to allow my story to exist on its own terms.
There are trade-offs in moving from one medium to the other. I like novels because they are rich. I can sink into them for days at a time, losing myself in those descriptive details, in the intricacies of worldbuilding and character development. I like short stories because they are spare, concise, powerful. One is a classic record album, the other a great song. One is a three-course feast, the other the perfect nosh. Insert your analogy here.
If you are interested in reading (or in hearing me read via an mp3 file) a short story I wrote in the Thieftaker world, go to this page and click on the link for “The Witch of Dedham.” The story you’ll find there is, in my mind, one of the best things I’ve ever written. It is a moment in time, a snapshot, if one can use such an anachronistic term to refer to a Colonial Era story. But it feels satisfying and complete because the trajectory of the story is made clear literally from the opening sentence.
What challenges do you find in writing short fiction as opposed to novels? What do you like or dislike about reading short stories?David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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