Plotting Ins and Outs
I thought I'd start this post with a confession: I'm a novel writer at heart. It might not be so obvious from glancing at my bibliography, which is made up mostly of short fiction--but when I started out as a writer some ten years ago, I went for novels. Then it occurred to me I'd find it easier to learn the basics of the craft if I wrote shorter stuff, and that's when I turned to short fiction.
I think the two main things I learned from writing short fiction is, first, that the basics of what works for novels (good plot, good characters, good prose) are equally valid for short stories. The second thing I learned, though, is that short stories are very much, and not very much like, compressed novels.
Sounds like a contradiction? Yup. The main thing about short stories is that I don't have as much space, and that pretty much everything has to be done on a smaller scale. This includes the plot. For a long time, my stories were pushing novelette length because I plotted them far too complex: I found that a short story's plot could actually be pretty much written in one sitting, and would, at most, involve a couple of paragraphs.
For instance, the plot of my story "The Wind-Blown Man" (which is 8,000 words long) goes something like this (with my comments in square brackets): "Abbess Shinxie sees a strange man arrive at her monastery [initial problem]. After a fruitless interview, she summons the Sixth Prince, with whom she once had an affair [further complication]. The Sixth Prince's interview is equally fruitless [further complication]. He decides to shock the strange man by savagely beating up his family in front of him [last and strongest complication]. The beating destroys the Sixth Prince's moral certainties, and Shinxie finally understands what the strange man came back for [climax and wrap up]".
See, that's the whole plot, almost scene by scene, and it barely takes up any space at all. Notice another thing, too, which is the small number of characters (three major characters, a number of minor ones such as the family, and walk-on extras like nameless monks): the more characters there are, the more time I'll have to devote to them, and the longer the story is going to be (it might seem an obvious thing, but it took me a year to figure that out). In many ways, the short story is a shorter novel: fewer locations, fewer characters, world building that's either not as detailed, or as detailed but working mostly from implications.
In other ways, the short story is quite a different beast. Because it's so short, there isn't quite the same level of investment from the reader: you often hear people say they got lost in a good book; the same thing rarely happens for short stories: the time spent reading them is just too small. It's both a bad and a good thing: bad because the reader won't be as invested in the storyline and characters--which I've always thought explained the need for a punchy wrap-up in short fiction: a novel can get by with a longish epilogue, because the reader will stick around to see their favorite characters get closure; a short story needs a vivid last few paragraphs, if possible a last strong image, if possible a last strong word--because it's so short, it has to make its mark, and make it strongly and enthusiastically.
Because there isn't the same level of investment from the reader, though, the writer is more free to explore other avenues: short stories can be written in experimental or unconventional styles, such as second person or pseudo-encyclopedias, or a mix of everything. Of course, it's also possible to do this with a novel, but it takes a much stronger writer to pull off an unconventional voice or structure; whereas at short story length, the effort the writer needs to make to sustain a reader's interest is of course proportionately lower.
To some extent, if the story is short enough, and/or carries enough already (such as a vivid voice, a great concept and/or great characters), the writer can also get away without a plot in the strictest sense of the term: the story can be a vignette or a series of vignettes which epitomize a mood, for instance (check out Lavie Tidhar's great "The Spontaneous Agitated Knotting of a String" over at Fantasy magazine, which is a great example of this), and or some other original structure, like a hyperlinked story (it's not online anymore, but Ruth Nestvold had a great story in the form of a series of reports and encyclopedia entries, all connected to a defining incident and its consequences--but the story itself didn't have a plot, because there was no beginning, middle or end, just a gradual revelation of what was happening and why). Again, this is also something that can be done in a novel, but with much more difficulty: without the anchor of a plot, it's really difficult to convince the reader to stay for 400 pages. Whereas anyone will read 4-10 pages if they're intriguing enough.
How complex can the plot be? That depends how long I want the story to be (though do note that the longer the story is, the harder it is going to be to sell: past 7500 words is a notch harder, and there are way fewer markets for stories above 10,000 words). The more events, twists and reversals I put into a short story, the longer it's going to be. Likewise, the more complex my world building is, or the more characters I have, the stronger the likelihood of my straying into novelette land. My rule of thumb (but do remember I go for complex world building, which means a lot of my word count is spent onto explaining non-conventional concepts) is that a vignette is around 2000 words; a story with a simple single-complication plot is around 3500-5000 words (generally with a very small cast--most of my stories at this length only have two developed characters, with a sketchy third character in the background who tends to be a bit of an easy cliché); and a more realistic story with a complex situation, three-four major characters, a handful of named extras and unnamed ones, and two-three complications is around 6000-8000 words.
That's my idea of plotting short stories vs. novels. What's yours? Any tips on what works and doesn't work for you?
Aliette de Bodard is a Franco-Vietnamese who lives in Paris, France, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her work has appeared in venues such as Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy and the Year's Best Science Fiction. She has been a finalist for the British Science Fiction Awards, the Nebulas and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her series Obsidian and Blood, standalone hybrids of mystery/fantasy set at the height of the Aztec Empire, is published by Angry Robot: the newest book, Harbinger of the Storm, is now out--featuring political intrigues, blood magic and flesh-eating demons.