Short Stories: Idea Size Matters

by | April 13, 2016 |

Last week I was on the phone with an editor discussing one of my short stories The Alpha’s Edge. She told me that when she hears a novelist say, “I want to write short stories” – mostly for the purpose of getting more material out into the marketplace quickly – she always responds, “Don’t do it!”

Her point is that good short stories are not easy to write, and novelists who typically write big stories do not always know how to control shorter forms. Fewer pages do not mean less work, nor are they necessarily faster to write.

There is an old public speaking joke: “My price for a 2-hour talk is $5,000. My price for a 20-minute talk is $10,000.” It takes a lot of revising to cut out all you don’t need, to find the absolute essential points of your presentation.

city-art-graffiti-wallMy metaphor is the canvas. Focused topics need small ones. Big themes go on murals.

Note: See my blog How Big Is Your Canvas?

Bottom line: The size of your story idea and the size of your canvas inform one together.

I’m a writer who gravitates toward the big canvas. I wouldn’t know what to put in 10-page short stories (say, 3000 words, max). There are authors who do, but I’m not one of them. For me, even my short stories are relatively long. I can’t write one less than 90+ pages (25,000+ words).

In my first final draft (i.e. one I felt I could show an editor) of The Alpha’s Edge, I made the mistake my editor anticipated, namely I underwrote it. I had more story than pages. The story/pages mismatch shortchanged the development of the central love relationship. All the potential was there, but I just hadn’t completely exploited it. She told me I needed to add a few scenes.

My first reaction was, “But now it’s turning into more than a short story. It’s more like a novella.”

Her reply: “Don’t think about that. These categories don’t mean anything.”

My purpose in writing The Alpha’s Edge is: first, to set up the world of the shapeshifter trilogy I’m starting; and, second, to have a story to give away to people who sign up for my blog.

In my first final draft, I did the job of setting up the werewolf world, but I rushed the love story. I limited myself by limiting the size of the canvas I thought I was painting on. The love story arc was cramped.

The editor is right. Categories like ‘short stories’, ‘novellas’, ‘novels’ and so forth don’t mean anything. There is only story idea and appropriate size of canvas.

It might seem that story ideas are scalable, that you can turn a short story into a novel by making explicit the implicit layers in the short story idea; and vice versa, that you could find a short story nugget within a novel and pull it out.

However, I don’t think that’s right. I can’t imagine what the shorter version of The Alpha’s Edge would be any more than I can imagine the longer form of it.

O’Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” or Maupassant’s “The Necklace” foreground the ironies of life, the cross-purposes created by love or dislike or miscommunication. These story ideas don’t support novel versions. Their writers, like effective public speakers, cut out everything they didn’t need.

Similarly, novels aren’t expansions of short stories, because novels are economical in their own way.

For one, novels shouldn’t have wasted words, any more than should short stories.

For another, there’s an old novelist adage that says, “Start your story as close to the end as possible.” This wisdom helps focus the novelist’s attention. It’s a means of cutting out the extraneous stuff, like what happened to your main character in grade school – unless starting by what happened in grade school really is closest to the end as possible.

Because reading elapses over time, the canvas metaphor is not perfect. Perhaps a better, but more abstract, metaphor is that of pressure.

How much pressure does your story idea exert?

Shorter story ideas exert lots of pressure. They want compression. They want to be polished pearls.

Longer story ideas exert less pressure. They want expansion. They want to be unfurling ribbons.

If you can think of an image that represents your story idea, then you might get a good idea of your story size.

If you like, sign up for my blog and get a free copy of The Alpha’s Edge.

See also: All My Writing Blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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