Monday, 27 February 2012

Short Story or Novel?

As an E-published short story writer and aspiring author myself I sit on both sides of the fence. In an effort to gain some clarity I invited the excellent author David Bishop to share his thoughts on short stories Vs novel length fiction. Here is what he had to say.

Is the story you want to tell one best told in short form or in the long novel form, or perhaps the tweener, a novella? Generally speaking, this decision will be mostly intuitive, but it will also be influenced by what you want to do with it.

I am a novelist of mysteries. I prefer that length because it provides the room to flesh out characters and build plot.  The novel provides the space to salt real clues that point the discerning reader toward the antagonist, while also scattering about a few red herrings designed to have the reader believe someone else is the dastardly villain, perhaps the butler, only to later learn the butler had been the only honorable character in the story.

I write short stories for one of two primary reasons:  I post short stories to the blog page on my website, to illustrate my writing skills with the hope readers will choose to graduate to one of my novels. I also write short stories to train myself to write leaner, that is, to trim off the fat of excess words that fails to advance the story. We have all read fiction where we skip ahead a paragraph or more to advance our reading past whatever element of the story the author has overwritten. Descriptions of people, places, and things need to paint a word picture that allows the reader to see those elements of the story, and to invoke the reader’s senses. At the same time, these descriptions and backstory must be kept short enough to hold the reader’s interest. This principle increases in importance as that person, place or thing decreases in importance. The reader does not need to know about the round white aphids on the full abundant verdant rose leaves, if only the red rose bush is integral to the story.

I set up parameters for short stories before I begin to write, imagining them as training exercises. This forces me to trim off the word-fat as I write and edit. For example, I once wrote a three sentence description of a female director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and then shortened it thus: she had the look of a librarian and the heart of a cobra. Lean. The readers then interpret, subconsciously perhaps, their take on the look of a librarian and the absence of a caring heart in a cobra.

An example of this lean style can be found in personal blog post. Before beginning that short, The Bijou, I set these parameters: not to exceed 500 words about a woman alone in a closed and boarded up movie theater. My first draft had 610 words, my final edition 499. I cut out nothing, just trimmed the word-fat out of the sentences.

How do I use this “leanness” when writing novels? Novels are long-form fiction and whether a given book totals 60,000 or 90,000 words alone does not say the story missed its mark. However, this length freedom often leads to: twelve words instead of ten in the previous sentence—so what? Two sentences about something that does not advance the story or endear the character to the reader—so what? Too much of that sort of thing causes yawns, and, if it continues, will lead to that novel becoming a wall-banger, just before the reader reaches for an alternative novel. So, I like to write lean, or perhaps I should say leaner. Some fat enhances the flavor, but too much ruins the taste for the all important reader.
To learn more about David Bishop please visit his website or check out his latest novel The Third Coincidence 


  1. Interesting, David. Thanks for sharing these wise words. I read Stephen King's On Writing a while ago and the main tip it took from it was, "Omit unnecessary words." I try to do that in most things I write but, as you said, a novel requires a bit of fat. I'm working on my novel at the moment and I'm trying to include that...but I'm finding it hard. I'm sure it will come.


  2. Thanks guys. This rang so many bells in my head I'm having trouble hearing the radio.

    George Clayton Johnson (the author of Logans Run and Ocean's Eleven -- both so much darker and better by far than the movies made of thos titles, including the Rat Pack version and Clooney's movies and the weak ass adaptation done for Logan's Run disaster)told me once, "If a single sentence or even a single word in your story doesn't advance the plot -- you're doing it wrong."
    The prime example of this philosophy, I think, is Elmore Leonard who does flesh out his novels more -- but not so much they lose the impact of his shorter works.

  3. Tremendously informative this. It's something I have at the forefront of my mind each time I write. My motto: "Cut the bullshit, let's get it on!" :-)

    Thanks for your poignant take on leanness, David, and cheers to Graham for hosting.

    I'll be spreading the word on this.


  4. I also write short stories to train myself to write leaner, that is, to trim off the fat of excess words that fails to advance the story.

    Agree wholeheartedly. It's amazing what you can cut if you pretend you have no choice but to excise 10% of your word count. Makes the writing stronger.

    Thanks for sharing your process, David, and thanks for the post, Graham!

  5. My thanks go to David for writing this piece and to all who have commented.

    It's a very informative piece which has obviously rung a lot of bells with you all.