Short Fiction vs Novels AND ALSO…Setting

First, a little bit about my background. Then, the difference between Short Stories and Novels. Last, a word about writing setting, and why it’s more important than I thought. Skip around if you want. I won’t be offended.

my writing background

If you’d asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have had one of three answers: 1) goalie in the NHL, 2) marine biologist, or 3) actress.

1—I grew up in the desert of Colorado and none of my friends wanted to play street hockey with me.

2—As a child I was deathly afraid of whales. They still totally creep me out.

3—Seemed most viable.

Problem was, this tiny little town I grew up in had very little culture, very few opportunities for me to pursue theater until it was introduced in 8th grade as an elective. Until that point, I read Shakespeare and wrote my own scripts. Writing was a means to an end.

My eighth grade year, my school also finally included a creative writing elective. It wasn’t much, but it was my first real instruction in writing, and it was short stories. I learned that writing could be its own reward.

I continued taking creative writing in high school and decided to major in writing in college (my grandparents, who helped me pay my tuition at this private liberal arts university, forbade me from majoring in the arts. Writing I got away with because I could train as a technical writer). Halfway through my junior year, I changed my major to a combination of writing and graphic design. That choice meant I had to give up some writing classes, and one that I gave up was “Writing of Place.”

I thought it was a good choice at the time. When reading, I usually skimmed or completely skipped paragraphs of exposition, unless I REALLY liked the book and was determined to read every. single. word. Setting seemed secondary to the rest of the novel. Who wants to read twelve paragraphs about how undulating the hilly landscape is? Not I.

Sometimes I just wished that all books were illustrated…

When writing skits or plays, I don’t have to write setting—I can write a line or two and leave the rest to the set designer. Setting was an afterthought.

I have a problem few others share. Most writers write too much and then have to edit, edit, edit, edit to trim the fat. I write a skeleton of a story and then revise and revise to give it some more fat.

So it comes as no surprise that, when I decided to try NaNoWriMo a few year’s back, I got about 3,000 words into my novel and realized that I was about halfway through the plot. That’s not a novel. That’s a pathetic, anemic excuse for a novel. I learned then that a novel is in a completely different league than short stories (not to mention plays).

the difference between novels and short fiction

First, there’s a difference in length.

  • Length—Novels are longest, novellas are shorter, and short stories are shortest. See the numbers below for my recommendations. For more information, check out this post on Novel-Writing-Help.com
    • Novel                  80,000–100K words
    • Novella               20,000–50,000 words
    • Short Fiction    2,500–10,000 words
    • Flash Fiction     fewer than 1,000 words

With all those extra words, novels have more room to explore…more.

There’s a difference in scope.

  • CHARACTERS—Short stories usually focus on one or two characters. Novels often introduce a larger cast of protagonists, antagonists, secondary characters, and minor characters.
  • PLOT—Novels have longer, more complex plots. Short stories have to be simpler than novels because of the length constraint. However, I think there’s more freedom with short stories because they have a selective plot. Making Shapely Fiction is a great resource on the variety of “shapes” short fiction can take.
  • SETTING—Novels take you to more places, switch scenes more often, or stay in one place through more seasons.

And there’s a difference in depth.

  • CHARACTERS—Novels can explore depth of character in more words. But this can be a pitfall, because it tempts writers to spend far too much time in backstory. Feel free to get carried away during the drafting process, but kill, kill, kill! during revision
  • PLOT—Novels have plots, subplots and twists to keep the reader turning pages. Short stories usually focus on one plot line.
  • SETTING—A more generous word count means novels spend more time exploring setting. 

setting

Too much setting, and the reader’s eyes glaze over and they skip a few paragraphs. Too little setting, and you have a novel that no one can connect with because all they can visualize is a bunch of nobodies floating around in nothingness doing nothing. Unless you are Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot, it’s not going to work. In fact, I think that Waiting for Godot is a waste of ink.

You really don’t want to know what I know about writing setting because…I really have no idea what I’m doing yet. But the best resource I have yet found on the subject is “Four Ways to Bring Settings to Life” by Moira Allen. You can read it here. Yes, the website isn’t the prettiest, but the text is what is important.

practice

So here’s your Monday Motivation.

  1. Take a character you know fairly well. Your WIP’s protagonist, your favorite fictional character, yourself, etc.
  2. Choose a mood for your character. Angstful? Annoyed? Embarrassed? Lonely? Something else?
  3. Pick a setting/situation and place your character in it.
  4. What is happening? How does your character react? What does your character notice? Keep his or her mood in mind—how we feel influences what we see and what we do.
  5. Write until you feel satisfied that you learned something or challenged yourself.

3 thoughts on “Short Fiction vs Novels AND ALSO…Setting

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