Thursday, January 12, 2012

Novels v. Short Stories, Character v. Plot?

From 2012-01 (Jan)

I saw this food for thought on a writing board today…  It is a quote from  New Letters, Vol. 77, by Walter Cummins.

Lately, I've been testing a theory with people about the differences between novels and stories. They give me perplexed looks, but I think my theory has some validity. In novels the events of the story and even the story itself are at the service of the characters. In short stories, the characters are at the service of the story. Since I came up with the theory, I've been finding it supported in novels I read, with many scenes that are less about advancing the plot than about developing the characters. That's not to say novels don't tell stories, but rather that the incidents and pacing in general, are often to provide a deeper sense of the people affected by what happens than about what is actually happening.

Years ago I had a parallel theory that stories are about incidents, where novels are about relationships.

I’ve been reading a lot of “classic” sci-fi over the last couple months (Arthur C. Clarke, Greg Bear) and I must say that, especially with Clarke…  Well, people don’t read those books for the characters!

However, in more literary genres, I’d say this quote, without much thought put into it from my end, sounds pretty accurate to me. 

I’ve never thought about it this way before.  Of course, length is the primary determination, obviously…

But, for years, I think length is all I really thought about.  Novels are just longer stories than short stories.  Of course, being longer, they needed to be more complex than their shorter kin, but other than that, was there really much difference?

Sure, people talk about the “art of the novel” in literary and writing circles, and I am sure every English major has run across or taken a class with that name or a similar one, I know I have, but in that class, I don’t think we ever talked about anything that really, truly made a novel different than a short story other than length. 

For years, though, it seemed to me that there might be some more subtle characteristics defining the difference.  Primarily, these differences should reveal themselves in the techniques the writer uses (beyond length of plot, detail of plot, and sheer word/page count) to make a piece of narrative fiction interesting enough to command the reader’s attention span for a longer period of time and for multiple sittings…

These ideas interested me, but not enough to look any further into them.  Not interesting enough to write a paper on this topic or to think about it for longer than 30 seconds, but that is probably 30 seconds longer than most people spend thinking about this.

At first, I found that Cummins’ idea held water, not as the only difference between novels and short stories, but as one major and common difference, but as I spent more time thinking about it, well, probably not.  Yes, his definition can define two different types of narrative fiction, but not the difference between a short story and a novel.

Holding those recent Sci-Fi novels up to this lens, I would actually say that Clarke, mostly, wrote long stories under Cummins’ definition while Bear actually tackles novels.  The actual length of their books does not contradict this idea.  Clarke’s best are pretty short and I read them in one or two sittings.  Bear’s are longer and more complex.

Another difference, touched on in the first paragraph here, is the fact that in Clarke’s stories the characters are very secondary to the setting and plot.  They are almost an afterthought.  In many ways, in many of his books, it might almost have been more interesting and more “artistic” (whatever that really means) if he didn’t bother at all.   If he just put in nameless, characterless figures described only by their actions and physical locations…  Rendezvous With Rama is almost like that already. 

Removing most traces of character development would probably, also, shorten Rama into a short story, being a short novel to begin with.  It would read something like this:

One of the humans received a message that Mercury’s missiles were on their way…  A different human flew out into space near the massive alien artifact to watch the impact, expecting to die shortly afterwards.  The human was not sad, merely resigned to its fate and thankful for the sublime adventure preceding its transition into non-existence.

When looking at more literary forms of fiction, with much more complex characters and more subtle plots than mainstream science fiction, I think the idea of finding unique traits differentiating novels and stories become so complex that it would be nearly impossible to outline them all.  What do you do with someone like Raymond Carver, who’s short stories are almost plotless?  He died and we ate baked goods.  What do you do with Falkner, who’s novels can be almost plotless?  She died and we moved the body.

In the end, the shared traits that define successful novels and stories dominate so completely that the minor differences are overwhelmed and almost completely impossible to discern beyond the broad strokes, the architectural differences of size and structure…

And when it comes to the reader, do we even really care?  If it is interesting and worth reading, we read it and enjoy it, if not, we don’t (enjoy it, at least).  This whole question is really only of interest to writers, I suspect.  Even students of literature can find much more interesting avenues of criticism to spend their time exploring, I know I always did. 

But as a writer, I do find this interesting.

In fact, in other news, I just had a bit of a break through with the novel I’ve been pondering and tinkering with for a bit.  I suppose this is why this quote originally caught my attention.

One of my plans, for a while, has been to start working on a couple of short stories set in the world my novel will be set in, just to practice, to get back in the habit of writing, and to help flesh that world out a bit.  Outside of scraping some rust off of the fiction writing chops, these stories would help me define the world, but, and this is really the most important, it would get me doing some creative writing, accomplishing something, anything, while I finish the research I still feel I need to wrap up before starting the actual novel.

And these pieces would, most likely, be independent stories, not just disembodied chapters of the novel.  Slightly different settings, definitely different characters, and small plots independent from the narrative arc of the novel. 

Of course, plans are not actions, and, being busy with other projects in other arenas, I haven’t started any stories.  Mostly because I haven’t had any idea about what to write about and I haven’t had the time to sit down and develop some story ideas.  Most of the time I’ve spent thinking about the novel and the world it is set in over the last year has been tinkering with those characters, plots, and settings.

However, a couple nights ago, I had a great idea for a short story.  Even better, it was set in a part of the fictional universe outside of where the bulk of the novel is set.  A perfect, independent short story. 

This, in turn, led to some thoughts right in the territory of the quote I found today.  Primarily, what narrative goals do I have with the short story and how are they different than the goals of the novel?  A stuffy way of saying, essentially, what parts of this story do I want to tell in the story versus the novel?

It may all be moot, though.  Since coming up with the short story idea, I am starting to suspect that it is actually the first chapter of the novel, but it is still, essentially, a stand alone plot featuring characters who will only appear the one time in the novel.

This is where the quote comes into play.  With the novel, I have a setting and some characters, but I am struggling with the plot.  More than the excuse of research, this is primarily why I have not started writing yet.

However, with the story, the plot is what came to mind first, and only after that did I start thinking about the characters. 

So, in my own recent experience, at least with these two projects, Cummins seems to nail it.  But, then again, he nails me here because of the happy accidents of my creative process at this time.  I know many novels are built by writers coming up with a plot and then adding characters to move it, not the other way around.  And many short stories, my own, usually, are written by coming up with characters first and, only then, trying to figure out what they are going to do.

So I really don’t think that Cummins is getting close to any Grand Unified Theory of Literature here, but he has found an interesting perspective that can be a useful tool for writers when looking at their own works in progress.  I could see this being a very useful concept to apply to a draft that is bogging down or losing its way… 

While muddling through a rough patch, I can very much picture myself stopping and asking a few questions…  Am I lost because I am putting plot before character in a character driven narrative?  Or, on the flip side, does this feel tangential because I am putting character development ahead of plot in a plot driven narrative?

Unfortunately, when looking at it like that, I don’t see where length has much to do with anything when looking at plot-driven narratives versus character-driven narratives.  So, no.  Cummins’ idea is a useful one, but I do not think it really has that much to do with the difference between a story and a novel, and I drift back towards the idea that the only real difference between the two in the end is probably just uncodifiable narrative complexity and , dum-de-dum…  Length.

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