Storyville: Horror Story vs. Horror Novel
Today I’m going to be talking about how to establish the length of your story, and while I’ll be focusing on horror, you can probably apply all of my comments to any genre. Sometimes the story decides what it wants to be, but for now, let’s pretend like we’re in control.
DEPTH OF PLOT
One of the first things I look at when trying to figure out how long my story will be is the depth of plot. If you’re going to write a novel, there had better be a lot of details—the internal and external conflicts fully developed. If you’re writing something that has less going on—more of a vignette—or if it’s more experimental, it probably will have to be shorter. I recently wrote a story called, “Undone.” It’s only 1,500 words, which was the minimum length for an open call I saw, and I decided to take a run at writing a story that was only one sentence. I was inspired by “Faberge” which I published at Gamut, by Stephen Graham Jones, and the long sentences of Cormac McCarthy, so I took a run at it. Obviously, this couldn’t be sustained much longer. As it was, it was very tricky getting to 1,500 only using commas and em-dashes, no semi-colons. The plot is minimalist at best. But the tension, which is essential for horror, is there the entire time (if I did my job, that is).
DEPTH OF CHARACTER
This is another aspect to look at when writing fiction. How deep do you need to go to full reveal your main characters, especially your protagonist? I’d say that you have to go deep on ANY story, but think of the ways that you can SHOW on the page the depth, layers, and nuances of an individual in flash fiction vs. a story vs. a novella vs. a novel. I knew that I was going pretty deep with my last two novels (Disintegration and Breaker). In order to show how far down the rabbit hole my unnamed protagonist would go in Disintegration, I had to have time to show the man he used to be, the man he is “now” in the story, and then work toward an ending that flipped that, showing the change, resolution, and denouement. Same with Breaker. The title refers to the fact that the protagonist breaks people in the ring, in these underground fight clubs—a physical man, huge, bald, overweight, pale. A scary dude. But inside, a softie. I knew I had to show his childhood, and who we was now, and how he was struggling to not become what he was destined to become—a cold-blooded serial killer. Was it nature or nurture? Add in the layer about breaking the cycle of abuse, and I knew that this had to be a novel.
NUMBER OF CHARACTERS
I also think that if you are going to have a huge cast, it’s really hard to do in a short story. I constantly challenge my students to simplify—two friends instead of three, one brother instead of two. Can you do it? Sure, it’s just more difficult. Same when it comes to POV—one perspective is much easier than a split narrative, or multiple views. Partly it’s just a matter of time and space. The more characters you put in your story, the more time you need to spend developing them. Look at the cast of Stephen King’s The Stand. Epic journey, so much going on, that novel just had to be a book, never could have worked as anything less, and it also was over 1,000 pages. So keep that in mind. If you ARE going to have a lot of characters in a short story, you'd better do a great job of differentiating between them, and each character has to play an important role, no redundancy. Now, if you plan on killing off a lot of them early on, that’s cool, but remember—we have to CARE about them first, so it’s tricky. Make sure of that.
One of the key elements in horror that makes it unique is setting. While you certainly can have deep, layered, intense settings in just about any genre, I think it’s essential in horror. So you need time to do that, right? Can you do that in 5,000 words? Sure. You can do that in 1,000 words, but looking at your project, think about how important the setting is to your story. Is it a haunted house story? Then we need a lot of time to explore that rotting mansion, right? Is it based on an exotic location? Then we need time to explore that jungle, desert, or lost city. The more essential the setting, the more complicated it is, the longer your story will probably become. You need that space to show it, to unpack, and allow it to breathe. Coming back to Disintegration, I knew that the city of Chicago (specifically the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhoods) would be a very important part of the bleak, isolated, cold backdrop for my story. Chicago in the winter can be pretty rough (I mean, not Alaska brutal, but still intense), and the details made for a layered narrative.
This is what I think of as meat on the bone—how complicated is your project? Sometimes, in my classes, I see students bite off more than they can chew. It could be they just don’t have the chops to pull it off. It could be they can’t do it in 5,000 words. How much story is there, really, for you to chase down, develop, and show us? Often, there just isn’t enough there. I think of the stories I’ve written (140+ at this point) and many of them I can’t see having enough depth, emotion, complication, and heart to become a novella or novel. There really has to be a lot there. Likewise, don’t try to jam something that needs 65,000 words to breathe into a 3,000-word story. It just won’t work. You can condense, you can reduce your story like a fine sauce, cooking off the water and intensifying the flavors, but it’s very hard to do. And some stories, they just won’t reduce.
When it comes to short stories, I try to let the fiction be what it wants to be—500 or 3,000 or 6,000 words. Write to the length that it needs to be. If you’re on deadline, and the open call says between 3,000 and 5,000 words, you should be able to figure out pretty quickly if you can hit that mark. Expand where you need to, reduce where you must. Novels, they are another beast entirely. There has to be a lot of depth there—in character, story, and setting. You really have to be passionate and interested in the subject matter as well, in order to spend weeks, months, even years developing it. When it comes to horror—look at the essential elements, see how much room you need, and then chase it down. Good luck!
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