Storyville: Pacing and Depth in Short Fiction vs. Novels
I’m teaching a few different classes right now, and one of the biggest issues I see with authors that switch from short stories to novels is pacing and depth. If you’ve written flash fiction you may already understand the difference between telling a story in 1,000 words (or less) and doing the same with 5,000 words (or more). As you go from a story that is less than 7,500 words long (the maximum word count for a short story) to a novel, you are going to have to expand up to TEN TIMES that length. So let’s dig in and address that expansion.
I talk a lot about Freytag’s Triangle in my classes—the use of narrative hooks, the inciting incident (that moment in time after which things will NEVER be the same), exposition, and conflict (both internal and external). But more than that goes into the opening of a story, of any length. There's world building, you have characters to show and reveal, atmosphere, mood, theme, foreshadowing... So how does it differ in a short story vs. a novel?
For a short story, you don’t have the room to spend an eternity on your beginning. You need to do ALL of the things I just mentioned, but they must happen in your first line and hook, the first paragraph, the first page. Most of my stories are around 5,000 words, but lately I’ve been expanding to over 6,000. If you take that length and divide it into three scenes (or acts) you only have a few thousand words for each scene. That’s not a lot of room. So you are going to condense. With flash fiction, you may have to reduce even further, really making sure the first paragraph does a lot.
With a novel, you have room to breathe. I was talking to one of my Novel in a Year classes last night and we were HAMMERING their opening chapters. When I talk about narrative hooks and grabbing the reader (both with broad brush strokes—big moments, ideas, and concepts as well as personal details and that sense of urgency) it needs to be done again and again. I don’t want a little baby hook—I want a monster hook, with five prongs: first line, first paragraph, first page, first scene, first chapter. So pay special attention to the start of your novel. While your story may need to open strong in a few hundred words, your novel opening may take up to the entire first chapter.
This is something I really can’t stress enough. Not only do you need to ground the story as soon as possible, but in great detail. Whether you are a maximalist or a minimalist, you have to establish your world. Not only is this important in regards to genre, but also to help the reader see the story and its various conflicts. If this is a science fiction story or novel, where is it, when is it, how is it different, and how have the rules changed? If it’s horror, then what is lurking, looming, and how can you foreshadow? With fantasy, you may have an entire world that you are building, from scratch, so it’s essential to show us all of that, in as much detail as is possible.
Think about the last short story you wrote. I have a few stories out this year, and “The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation,” (Shallow Creek) is set in the woods, and the protagonist is an elderly clown, a perspective I knew I wanted to show. The setting is crucial to the story, with tons of clues, and hopefully some great atmosphere. Here is a brief quote:
In the most northern reaches of the Silverpine Forest, past the lumber mill, east of the abandoned mine, just this side of Devil’s Gorge, there is a hut. It’s nothing special, really, scraps of wood and sheet metal, held together with rumor and rusty nails, a roof made out of old billboards, a hint of a cereal ad peeking through, with a splash of red—a faded logo barely visible.
How it is still standing, after all this time? That can be debated.
Perhaps it was built in the shadow of a huge oak tree that shades the structure, protecting it, the occasional acorns raining down on the wood and metal roof, creating a ripple of percussion in the otherwise quiet forest. Maybe it’s the animal fat that is slathered over the frame, the sinew wrapped around one board after another, dried now, creating a bond, that might be cemented even further tomorrow, or the next day. Or it might be something else entirely—an illusion, some sort of glimmer of technology rippling under the building, a line of gold running through the tiny house, as if a motherboard had been pressed into the rotting wood, a surge of electricity running over it all, then fading as the sun pushes through the dense foliage. Whatever is happening here, the old man standing in the doorway holds a flickering presence, both daunting in the shadow and void he creates, but vulnerable in his sickly thin appearance, an old flannel shirt barely covering his pale flesh and bony arms, dirty jeans leading down to black boots that are grotesquely oversized, the only bit of joy his shockingly bright hair in a rainbow of colors, as well as a red bulbous nose in the center of his face. He grabs the sphere and rips it off, leaving behind a gap where a fleshy proboscis must have once resided, flinging the spongy crimson ball to the forest floor, where it bounces into a pile of leaves and disappears. He turns and heads back into the residence, the nose back on his face, a bit of magic here, the illusion continuing.”
That’s 355 words out of 4,063—about eight percent. That’s almost a tenth of the entire story in those three paragraphs. But I think it sets things up nicely. I wanted to give you “clown” elements, but also try to do something different.
When I think of the opening to my novels Disintegration and Breaker, the entire first chapter (or prologue) is about setting and world building. One starts with a man sitting at a table, obviously strung out on drugs, legs trembling, as an envelope is slid under the door—and not for the first time. The other, shows a white van prowling a neighborhood, and it sets the stage for not only Logan Square (a place I lived, the location of our potential serial killer and protagonist) but the mood and tone for the entire book.
So not only do you need to expand your setting in the beginning of your novel, but throughout. Anywhere you would have used a sentence in a story, use a paragraph. Where you would have used a paragraph, use a page. A page, turns into a chapter. See what I mean? Keep thinking, ten times more. It doesn’t have to be all at once, but it should have the requisite depth. The first time we come to an important location, you need to slow down and unpack it and really show it well. And then every time we come back, we need to support that setting with atmosphere, tension, mood, symbolism, and theme—whether it’s that apartment in Disintegration or that hut in the woods filled with clown debris.
One of the things a novel can allow you to do is expand your cast. It’s difficult to tell a deep, layered, emotional story in a few thousand words—especially if you have several POVs and a lot of characters. You just don’t have the room. I mean, it can be done, it’s just not easy. So with a novel, whether you are writing a slim volume like Come Closer by Sara Gran, or an epic saga like Stephen King’s The Stand, a novel allows you to work with multiple perspectives, as well as larger casts. I rarely do a split narrative in a short story. It’s just very difficult to pull off. I can remember doing that with my story “Dyer,” because it was a Rashomon, four retellings of the same event, each with their own truth. But when I look at the 150 stories I’ve published over the years, do you know how many have multiple protagonists and narratives? Three.
So, when writing short fiction keep that in mind, and consider reducing your cast and narratives. With a novel? Go for it! Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is 710 pages and has a huge cast, with three primary narratives (Yagharek, Isaac, and Lin), as well as a several secondary characters that are allowed a point of view. For The Stand? Wikipedia lists almost thirty characters as being significant. Wow. (The uncut version is 1,153 pages long.)
Obviously, it’s the same thing here—you can have longer, more complicated conversations in a novel than in a short story. Think of everything you want your protagonist to say in a scene, and then think about how long your story (or novel) is going to be. If that scene is 90% dialogue and goes on for 500 words, in a story that is only 3,000 words long, that may be an issue. For a novel? No worries.
So, what I’m trying to say here, in case you didn’t notice, is that there are certain things you cannot do as well in a short story. At the very least, they're difficult to pull off. Keep that complicated plot, that expanded cast, and that massive world you are creating for your novel, and use your shorter fiction to condense, focus, and tighten. You can definitely write a slow burn, with building tension, strong emotions, and layered characters in less than 7,500 words. But when you decide to write that first novel, give yourself (and your characters) room to breathe, to talk, and to explore. We want to go deep and understand them, we want to spend more than a few minutes with them—we want to spend days, weeks, even months immersed in their story. Good luck!
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