Six impossible things

Cinderella at the Rock Concert

Last weekend, at 4th Street Fantasycon, somebody asked me for a post that I did years back on Usenet, on the difference between the way short story writers and novelists might develop the same basic story idea. Here it is:

Basically, short stories require a tight focus and a single, central plot thread; in a novel, there is more room for digression and development of more than one thing. The same basic idea can often be developed as a short story by keeping the plot/focus tight, or as a novel by letting it hang loose.

Starting with a simple idea: “I’ll do Cinderella set at a rock concert!”, a short story writer might lay out one scene to establish Cindy and her rotten roommates and the coming concert; another showing Cindy’s godmother arriving with tickets; the concert scene itself; and of course the stunning conclusion when the rock star shows up at the dorm to ask Cindy out. Four scenes, four to five major characters, fairly straightforward progression from setup through finish. Tight focus on Cindy and her star-struck eagerness to go to the concert and the happy ending. Most of the plot-work is already done; it’s the specific details that have to be worked out—the lightly sketched in personalities of the roommates, the encounter with the rock star at the concert when the power cable goes out and Cindy is in the right place (and has the right knowledge) to help fix the problem, just how to work in that lost sneaker, and so on.

A novelist, with the same idea, elaborates on just about every piece. “OK, I need to start with Cindy and her rotten roommates …”why are they rotten? Why don’t they like her? I know! I’ll give one of the roommates a jealous boyfriend … and I can do a whole mix-up where she dislikes Cindy because she thinks Cindy is trying to steal the boyfriend, when Cindy is just trying to convince him that he has no reason to be jealous. And I’ll make the other roommate be into drugs … yeah, and so’s one of the band members! Hey, I can put an undercover cop in with the roadies; that’ll give me an excuse to show how you set up for a rock concert. And the real pusher can be the assistant science prof, who’s supplementing his salary by mixing stuff in the science lab, and Cindy finds out when she and her godmother raid the lab for the mice on the night of the concert, only the cop thinks it’s really Cindy, so she has to hide from him and the pusher, and that’s why the rock star can’t find her. And the jealous boyfriend and the other roommate can help the rock star uncover clues in order to make up for causing Cindy so much trouble … ”

Characters and subplots and complications proliferate quickly, and they just won’t all fit into 5,000 or 10,000 words, not if they’re done right. And the minute the writer actually starts in on the first scene, the senior down the hall shows up, bringing in even more possibilities, and of course there’s the suspicious science prof who was the one who called in the cops in the first place (though of course she didn’t know it was her assistant who was making the drugs — she thought it was a student … maybe she can end up paired off with the undercover roadie cop … ), and Cindy’s slightly dotty godmother who breezes through on her way to Jamaica, and …

The focus, in the novel, is still on Cindy and her romance and/or development from shy, put-upon roommate to rock-star date, but all of the characters are more complex. Each character still feeds directly into the main plot thread — Cindy going to the rock concert unexpectedly, meeting the star, and disappearing so he has to hunt for her — but they all have their own sub-stories that are more developed and that feed into and support the central plot thread. It’s not just a matter of padding, or adding subplots — if you added the subplot about the druggie roomie and the pusher science assistant as an afterthought, you’d probably already have some other reason why Cindy disappeared after the rock concert, and the subplot would just be a sort of overlay instead of integral to the main story.

The progress, in the novel, isn’t nearly as straightforward as the four-to-five-scene short story version, because the author needs to get the subplots in, and to follow each of them until it feeds into the main plot thread. The roommate’s boyfriend has to be established, and so does the other roommate’s odd behavior, and Cindy’s shyness, so that when the roomies conspire to keep Cindy from finding out that the concert is almost sold out (so that she won’t rush out and get tickets until it’s too late) the reader has some idea why they did it. The lab and the science assistant have to be established, so that later on they can be revealed as the source of the drugs. And so on.

It’s also, obviously, not a matter of stringing together a series of related short stories to get a novel. The structure is all wrong. A novel builds to a big climax/finish; a string of short stories has lots of climaxes/finishes. You can do a certain amount to fix this by providing some overarching problem to be solved and setting the stories up as stopping points along the way (“He looked for his son here, and solved this little problem, and then he went there to look for his son, and solved this other problem, and then he went … “) but it never seems to work quite as well.

Also, more stuff nearly always comes up as the book goes along. You make up some trivial detail in Chapter One — that the roomie’s favorite CD is an expensive collector’s item, for instance — and it turns out to be a Really Important Clue in Chapter Thirteen that suddenly makes the whole plot go in a new direction (it’s not drugs, after all; it’s an international money-laundering scheme, and Cindy’s godmother from Jamaica is really a top-flight investigator who’s using Cindy to get to the rock concert because she thinks somebody there is involved … and now it’s therock star who’s the main suspect … and … ). Short stories are less prone to such major diversions, because they’re, well, short. A string of concatenated short stories doesn’t give you room for such diversions, either, because they each started out as complete in and of themselves.

The main problem I’ve seen people run into when they switch from writing short stuff to writing long stuff is the tendency to try to have everything clear in their heads before they start writing. You can do that with a short story, but almost nobody’s brain is large enough to hold a whole novel in that much detail. Short stories are like driving two blocks to the cleaners — you can see the whole two-block trip from your driveway before you ever start. Novels are like driving from Chicago to Denver — you can’t see the whole trip’s worth of road, but as long as you have a map, all you need to see is the next couple-of-blocks stretch of road that you’re going to drive. And it’s a lot more likely that you’ll encounter unexpected road work and have to change routes between Chicago and Denver than it is on the two blocks to the cleaners.

  1. This post has changed from what I remember in rasfc, but I can _almost_ see there from here.

    Sigh. I’ve been saying that for several years, haven’t I? My WIP has just – predictably – morphed into a trilogy, as they all do sooner or later…

  2. Thanks– I think I understand the difference much better now. My problem is that all I can ever think to write about is novels, but I have yet to finish even one, and any short stories I might have planned are either discarded or suddenly turn comlex…

    • If you had managed to finish a whole novel by the age of nine, you would be too scary to stand.

      Some writers are natural novelists, and you sound as if you may be one. It won’t hurt to keep trying to write short stories, but don’t be surprised if they turn into novels. And as I said earlier, a novel is quite a committment. You might try starting from an outline-which is short enough to complete-and then expanding bits until it gets to novel size. (If you hate revising, this will probably not work, as it tends to feel like revising for most of the writing, even though it isn’t.)

  3. Well, I have finished three short stories, and for three months I have been working on a story that is coming along nicely. But I really like revising and editing. In school, I almost didn’t finish my own story because I was so busy editing everyone else’s ! 🙂

    Also, I have just finished reading Howl’s Moving Castle, and I loved it! Thank you so much for suggesting it…

  4. Hello;

    I have read all of your books in the past, but, I have not been able to find a new book by you for many years.

    About a week ago, I was reading on Diana Pharoh Francis’s blog that she had just finished reading your newest book. Was I ever excited to read that.

    I have reread your books in the meantime and I am now on my way out to get your newest. I can’t hardly wait.


  5. Boy, now I want to read about Cindy at the rock concert. 🙂

  6. “Novels are like driving from Chicago to Denver—you can’t see the whole trip’s worth of road, but as long as you have a map, all you need to see is the next couple-of-blocks stretch of road that you’re going to drive.”

    But what is the map? An outline?

    • For me, the outline is the map; for other writers, it can be just a vague idea of what the end is going to be like. And some people just head off on the open highway without any idea where they’re going at all. Analogies aren’t perfect, ever.

  7. Tess,
    I don’t have a map as such. Every now and again I get a signpost, but mostly the characters decide what they’re doing – they act according to their own nature – and the storyverse determines what kind of story it is and what can happen. Harry Potter does not send in the Marines any more than a cyclist pulls over by the side of the road, flags down a passing plane, and makes the rest of the journey in record time: the way you start on a particular journey gives you a framework for how it will end.

    And sometimes you end up spending your holiday in Oregon, but you’re having a splendid time, and never get to miss Denver.

  8. Thanks for re-posting this: it is actually better than I remembered, and has just taken on an unexpected relevance. I’ve been sort of noodling around after finishing my last yarn, waiting for the first draft and feedback to cool off a bit. Yesterday one of the fairy-tales on my back burner frothed up into vehement life as a gaudy, apparently extraneous plot lump landed smack-dab in the middle of a transition passage.

    And as the chapter closed around it, I realised that this wasn’t a long short story or novella at all – that it had just unblocked itself by noticing that it was a shortish novel, and urgently demanding to be written as such.

    It managed to hit almost every one of your distinctions in the process. Why are the stock fairy-tale characters that way, and are they really from central casting at all, check; item dropped in that accidentally diverts plot-stream through awkward arid patch seen on horizon, check… I could bore on like the Mohole Project. From my point of view, a pretty timely post indeed, since I suspect it predisposed me to recognise exactly what was happening right there as it unfolded.

    Deluding myself that “this is not a novel” is not usually one of my faults…

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