Novel or short story?

Writing is a habitual drug, be it a creative shopping list, a nervous tax return, a 500-page tome, or a piece of flash fiction that leaves readers in instant wonder, but it would be foolish to say that any format is easy – including that shopping list.
At the sharpest end there is the ‘write a story in five words’ sector; at the, ‘this may be hard work, but you’ll feel better afterwards’, end it could be the physically and mentally draining historical memoir. In the middle lie the most common formats. I don’t write ‘flash fiction’ or either 50 or up to 1,000 words, although I admire those who do; my two areas of interest are novels of between 70,000 and 100,000 words, and short stories of up to 3,000.
I am no academic, nor an educated exponent of literary form, so these comments may fly in the face of best practice. Do I care? Not a jot.
The novel and the short story are intrinsically different in form and format, but they share many facets. The usual analogy is athletics, and the there’s little comparison between a sprint and long distance. I’m pretty sure Usain Bolt does just as much intensive training as Mo Farah, but the disciplines of running are very different. It’s also true that some novelists don’t write short stories, and not all short story writers want to be novelists.
The novel is a work of creative art which, so apocrypha claims, every person has within them. Bunkum. A novel needs time, dedication, a central thread that draws characters and events inexorably towards the centre, a fictitious plot that resonates with the reader as potentially believable, and a storyline that draws them effortlessly to a final denouement at the same time have the ability to allow easy extrapolation so that seemingly outrageous actions and scenarios have a firm basis in fictitious fact.
A novel needs a plan, but like many writers I know, the storyline develops as the characters grow out of the single dimension of the written word. It can be, and I like to think, should be, a complex interaction of characters whose personality evolves progressively over different chapters and actions. Perhaps a novel offers the reader a character fresh out of the innocence of the parental home who gradually, and by almost defined stages, becomes a villain, a drunk, a heroic life-saver, a dour, stolid policeman or even a bent copper, for example. It is this opportunity to take the complications of real life and translate them into fictional words that makes the novel such a wonderful beast to work with and on. It is a rich, absorbing and enthralling tapestry of thousands of words.
The short story? Easy innit? Just write fewer words. If only it were that simple. The disciplines of novels and short stories may differ, but each need an approach directed almost solely at the reader; for it is the reader we are entertaining, not ourselves.
For me, the short story begins life as a spark of imagination or inspiration; a chance remark overheard on the bus, in the cafe, in the pub, anywhere. I’m still seeking the plot that follows the sentence, “I’ve just come from young Fred’s funeral”. How many pictures that draws in my mind?
The format I tend to follow is to encapsulate descriptions of the key characters early on. This allows me to set the scene and develop the story at a pace that is measured, but quite quick. Sometimes a little aside is thrown in; sometimes that aside is crucial to the final denouement and, hopefully, the reader, at the very end, will go: ‘Aah, that’s what she/he meant’.
The short story is designed to be read in a single sitting: no breaks for a cuppa; just stay glued to the page. This means that every scene and action must play a key role in the development of the storyline. I want the reader to relax, but not allow their concentration to drift away.
Personally, I like a little twist, but mainly I want the reader to finish the story, put it down, relax and sigh contentedly. At the end of a novel or short story that I’ve fashioned and moulded, tweaked and cajoled into life, I want satisfaction. Novels, short stories; almost any form of writing, is hard work, but that is what creators want. Now; back to that shopping list …

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