Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Followup: The Clash of Forms

So there was some discussion of that big thinky post, and many of y'all chimed in.

On the Diversity of the Novel Species

David Moles wonders if there isn't more than one sort of novel. "One is what you're talking about, clearly (regardless of genre) in the tradition of the European novel; another, which I've heard argued should be considered a descendant of the (chivalric, gothic, etc.) romance--as if a book could have a purebred pedigree, but never mind--which might be more like what Jay's talking about, just a very long short story." Barth Anderson agrees: "Like Mr. Moles above I've been thinking about masquerades, though more how the typical genre short story with plot points, peaks and valleys, and other rising actions, is really a classic novella (I'm sure others have made this point), the definition of which has more to do with a story structure that necessitates length--and not simply a high word count for the sake of it. 'True' short stories have more in common with poetry, as you beautifully describe above. Effect and aesthetic response may be chosen over the novella's tension and plot. A keyhole view of a larger something. Closure of themes and images may be more important than resolution of plot. And in a short story, these affects can (should?) be achieved with great economy." Jeremy Tolbert goes on to say that "due to its length, there is more taxonomic complexity within the novel family, perhaps, than short stories. I think there is less genetic diversity in the short form than there is in the novel, maybe? Short stories might not be easier to write, but when it comes to certain structural decisions, you're limited more, and people who are paralyzed by too many options like me might find that fact comforting or helpful." This last point made me wonder if the structural limitations of a short story might not explain why it's so much more tempting to experiment in the short form, because rules--perceived or actual--tend to make certain personalities look for ways to break them.

Are Stories Moments, and Novels Continuums?

Haddayr Copley-Woods talks about her own preferences of form: "I think what fascinates me about life in general are these intense, strong moments--which is probably why I'm a short story writer instead of a novelist." Michael Jasper thinks that "not just size-wise, but concept-wise, stories are . . . more about intense life moments, like Haddayr mentioned, versus an entire LIFE, which novels often focus on." I pretty much agree with them both. I think that novels can have those intense, strong moments, but they tend to be diluted by everything else around them. I dislike framing the differences here in terms of value, but there are some things that I think short stories just do better, and one of those is that sort of "mugging" of the reader--the ability to deliver the gut punch and make the escape, leaving the reader to consider the implications. It's true that novels can deliver a similar blow, sometimes with more of an emotional impact, but in most cases it's decontextualized with respect to the reader. I mean that the events are further removed because the rest of the novel provides a sort of reality-cushion, if that makes any sense.

(Haddayr reacted badly to being called a mugger. I meant it in the best way.)

Sarah Prineas agrees. She thinks the difference boils down to character, and she brings examples. "I'm thinking about the early novel, as it was developing in 18th C. England. Its big difference from the 'Romance,' I think, is in its focus on character rather than on, I guess, adventure. So your big 18th C. novels are Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Tom Jones and Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison and Joseph Andrews, and (fudging dates a little), Emma and David Copperfield and Jane Eyre. In a big fat novel, you get to know a character really, really well. Take Clarissa, for example. By the time you get to the tragic end of that unabridged bookstop you by god know the woman, and your heart breaks for her. A strand of this kind of novel is still woven through lots of novels today--readers get to know characters very well, and enjoy that relationship. . . . Short stories, on the other hand? How can you get to know somebody, and care about them, in just 5000 words?"

This seems related, to me, to a bit of back-and-forth that Trent Hergenrader and I had on whether "focus" or "scope" were useful ways to distinguish novels from short stories. I liked what he said about scope: "Even novels that are interested in exploring a single idea usually have to do it from a variety of angles and perspectives which accounts for their length." I wasn't as convinced by his photography analogy, though. "I see novels as panoramics, shorts stories as macro photography. Neither is inherently 'better' than the other (even though panoramics take in more scenery) and both require technical skills to do properly." It's an interesting metaphor, but I'm beginning to think that the element of time is what's really at the center of the distinction. Maybe a short story is a photograph of a moment--perhaps a moment of decision, with implications of past and future--and a novel is a moving picture? Which is not to say that I think short stories are static, but that they feel less open-ended, more confined by their edges.

On Turning the Corner, or the Moveable Goal

A Mr. Elf Sternberg says: "I remember reading [Robert] McKee's book on scriptwriting, Story (great book for any writer, btw), and he said that most great stories start with a false desire in the protagonist: Luke wants to get off the planet, then he wants to avenge his stepparents, then he wants to save the galaxy, and then he wants to save his father (while Chewbacca takes on the role of saving the galaxy), and so on."

On a related note, Jed Hartman points to:

1. David Siegel's Two-Goal Structure (later expanded into the Nine-Act Structure) for movies; the idea that somewhere between the halfway point and the end of the story, the protagonist suddenly learns that they've been pursuing the wrong goal.

2. Heinlein's novels; sometime in or after college, I realized that almost every one of Heinlein's adult novels that I'd read contained a total upheaval almost exactly halfway through--a complete change in what the story's about and where it appears to be headed.

I also liked what Jed said about ideas: "I've heard it suggested that a short story may derive from the tensions among two or three basic ideas, while in a novel, there may be more like five or ten ideas. That's obviously a simplification and generalization, but I think there's something to it. In other words, it's not just that a single idea is either a short story idea or a novel idea (though I think there's something to that as well); it's that the number of ideas and ways they interact can be larger in a novel. A short story that starts with too many different ideas may feel cluttered; a novel that starts with too few may feel sparse."

This seems to tie into what Meghan McCarron says about the novel she's working on. "I can't hold it all in my head at once. I can think about the beginning, middle or end, but not about how they all hold together. That's how I think about my stories--that moment they build to, their core. My book has no core, not in the same way. And that makes it harder to control, and harder for maybe teh control-freaky to write." Meghan also notes that "corner-turning is my favorite part of fiction, it's thrilling when something takes a sharp left, and I hope to do that in my book, like, three different times, just b/c I love it. But I turn corners, I think, in my short fiction too. Or at least I try to. So maybe that's not just a novel thing, it's just way more intense in novels."

Which got me thinking about whether the center of a short story, that moment of decision, might be more of a pivot point. In other words, maybe the difference between turning corners in short fiction as opposed to novels may be that in short stories the turn can be that center or core that we're talking about--in the novel it may be an important moment, but ultimately it's one of several, whereas in a story there isn't room to turn a lot of corners.

Sizing Up Narrative

In a response to my initial post on this topic, Jay Lake expands on his original comment on "novel-sized plots" to explain that his distinction was based not on simple length but on structural complexity. "For example, one can characterize flash fiction as emphasizing only a single element of the stereotypical Western story--character in a setting with a problem, attempting multiple solutions with increasing levels of risk and failure, before achieving resolution, followed by reader validation. . . . Moving this model forward, a short short (let's say quantitatively falling between 1,000 and 7,500 words) can expand from the single-element approach of flash to encompass an entire story arc. Typically at this length the arc will not include subplots, feature only a single protagonist, and so forth. . . . Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words) introduce multiple plot arcs, subplots, strong secondary characters and even multiple protagonists. Digressions begin to appear, alarums and excursions propagate. And so the complexity continues up the scale through novellas (17,500-40,000), short novels (40,000-65,000), novels (65,000-125,000) and long novels (125,000+). . . . The key here is an expanding sense of structure."

On a related note, Lois Tilton puts in a word for the school of hard knocks experience. "You're a writer. You get an idea. First thing you need to do is figure if this is a novel-idea or a short story-idea. It might be both: that is, there might be both a short story and a novel that can be born from this idea, but they can never be the same. . . . Failure to identify what the idea needs to be will lead either to the novel idea crammed into a short story, or the short story idea bloated into a novel - both forms are doomed, both are failures. . . . It is a thing that experience teaches, undergoing both these forms of failure."


Yeah, I don't have any. But the discussion sparked a lot of thinking, which I found useful. I have to confess that I'm not naturally inclined towards this sort of dissection of fiction; I resist too closely examining what I do mainly because I'm superstitious about it, and I fear disenchantment. I'm finding, though, that in order to progress I feel like I need to figure out what I've been doing, and how I can improve upon the process and conception of it. Hopefully this is (at least somewhat) interesting for the rest of y'all as well.


Blogger Jed said...

I'm not sure whether this makes any sense, but your mention of pivots made me think that in a lot of traditional science fiction short-short stories, the point that could be seen as the pivot (in one sense of the word) is just before the final line -- the moment when the surprise twist ending is revealed, and we discover that the protagonists are really ants, or what planet the Apes live on, or whatever.

So maybe one reason that surprise twist endings bug me these days is that I want a pivot to have as much weight on the far side as on the near side -- or to put it another way, I want the point of the story to be something other than the pivot.

But I'm not sure that has anything to do with how you were using "pivot"; just a thought off the top of my head.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Jed, I think we're talking about the same thing; not that (and I know you're not saying this, but for others who may be reading) the pivot has to be a twist, but that in short-shorts it often is. And, yeah. My dad has a multi-volume collection of O. Henry's stories, and a while back I started on them with the intention of reading them all. I made it through most of one volume before I had to stop. A surfeit of cleverness, I would describe it as.

11:38 AM  

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