What form should my story take? Should it be a short story or a novel? Should it be 5,000 words or 80,000 words. How does one decide how many words their story needs? This is a topic I recently heard discussed on Writing Excuses, a podcast I have mentioned on my blog in the past.
I think this can be a tough question to answer for writers. Any idea, it could be argued, could either be written in short-form or stretched into a novel; it’s really up to you and how you want to structure your story. Of course, deciding on the length of the story will drastically alter the focus and manner in which you write your story.
But first, it’s best to ask yourself: is your goal a gut-punch–a swift uppercut to the jaw of emotion–or is it an immersive tale that has the reader leaning in to every twist and turn? This is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself; gut-punch or immersion?
One of the podcasters on Writing Excuses, Mary Robinette Kowal, believes that a short story should seek to gut-punch the reader.
I bet you never knew being a writer would be so violent?
In a short story every word should be crafted, and artfully placed, to produce a desired effect. The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson is a perfect example. By the time the ending of the story comes (which I won’t reveal here), you feel like you just got out of a dogfight; you’re a little dazed and excited. Some ideas lend themselves to this type of storytelling, namely stories that have one or two characters and one or two settings. Once the number of characters, setting, and plot lines begins to grow; you are probably looking at a novel. There just isn’t enough room to do all of those settings, characters, and plot lines justice in a short-story format. If you are telling one concise story, with one powerful plot line, then a short story may be the way to go.
A major reason the Harry Potter series is so enthralling and successful is J.K. Rowling’s immersive world. From the talking paintings on the walls at Hogwarts, to the strange flavors of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, one thing is certain, J.K. Rowling built a fantastic world. Imagine if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had been told as a short-story. How difficult would that be to do as an author?
I’ll tell you. Difficult.
You could argue that it’s possible to tell it in short story format, but Harry Potter is clearly more effective as a novel. This is because one of the major strengths of the story is the world-building and manner in which J.K. Rowling invites her readers into her world. That’s what makes it so fun. What reader doesn’t put down a Harry Potter book and wonder what House they would be in, or what it would be like to be a wizard?
Olympic Highlights versus the Opening Ceremony
Mary Robinette Kowal uses the television coverage of the Olympics as a great metaphor for the difference between short stories and novels.
A short story is like watching the highlights. You see little bit of the fanfare, but in reality you are only watching for that final flip. Does the gymnast land it? Does she fall? How does she react? A short story is like the highlights, where you want the emotional pay-off.
A novel is everything. You watch the olympic coverage leading up to the events, you watch the opening ceremonies, the warm-ups, action, and coaches reaction to the athletes. A novel is the entire experience; you want it all.
How do you decide on the length and format of your story? Are there other ways to make this decision. Let me know what you think!