Friday, July 20, 2012

Short Fiction and Structure

My friend Susan Quinn has had an interesting series of blog posts on short fiction and these posts have got me thinking about the differences in structure between novels and short stories.

Now, sometimes there isn't any real difference; the structure is the same, only shrunken to appetizer size. The basic parts are all still there: hook and introduction, character, conflict, rising action, obstacles, climax, and denouement. All the old villains. But sometimes the shortness of short fiction allows (or forces) variations.

Now, to be fair, there are experimental novels that play around with structure and form, but these are fairly few and far between even in the literary genre. The narrative forms of novels are pretty standard (though there are lots of possibilities for variation within them).

But in short fiction these structures can be attenuated. Writers are often told to start the action in media res (that is, start the story in importanct action and not endless backstory). In short fiction, though, there is the possibility of a sort of structural in medias res. The structure can be reduced. Not only can aspects of structure be down-sized to fit the smaller space, they can be left out altogether or combined as one. With limited space, for example, the hook, conflict, and climax could all be melded into one, with the rising action tossed out the window.

Short stories are narrower, more precarious structures. They balance on turning points that must do many things in a tiny space, and if they fail, the story will fail. The benefit of the novel is that it provides a chance to build a wide base. An interesting character, an interesting premise, and difficult obstacles that create conflict... these allow the writer to build a story, its excitement, and its impact, moving to a ripe conclusion that will hopefully affect the reader (the difficulty is that this is, well, difficult to do). Novels have momentum, a mathematical growth of force based on the novel's mass and velocity.

Short stories, however, particularly the very short stories that veer from traditional narrative structures, are very finely balanced. The brief flit of the character's actions across the page must be carefully supported by the structure and thematic movement of the piece. Think flying buttresses: elegant and airy structures that seem like decoration but actually, you know, hold the building up.

One of the biggest differences in the structures of novels and short stories is the character arc. A novel is driven along by two parallel arcs: the story arc and the character arc. The story arc is a plot structure, a series of interconnected events that rise toward a climax. The character arc is another structure, the internal structure, where a series of internal events slowly shapes the character toward a change, an understanding, or an epiphany. It's the way these two arc structures intertwine and play off each other that drives a novel toward a conclusion.

In short fiction, the character arc is often limited or missing. There may not be the space or time to develop a character, reveal his history, and then face obstacles that necessitate internal change (though there are obviously short stories that do this). What comes to replace this character arc and movement is thematic movement. Some such stories come out as thought experiments, with the goal being intellectual engagement rather than emotional engagement. But sometimes theme can be melded with character, and this thematic movement can take the place of character arc. A symbolic or metaphorical connection between character and theme can help create a bridge for the reader, widening the character's depth and appeal and allowing an emotional connection to the character and events of the story. Situation, setting, and language must be carefully chosen to create mood, meaning, and emotion; they must, in a sense, help replace the long history of a character's life on the page. The time taken to create emotional attachment must be foreshortened.

When such stories work, they create a moment, a sort of triangulation, where character, event, and theme come together to create a unique situtation, one that draws the reader into the story and creates an emotional investment. Which, of course, is easier said than done.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Very nice! I love your insights on using theme/mood to replace character arc! I think that character arc is what I'm truly seeing in novellas, the longer shorts that allow for that sort of thing. It's why they appeal to me. And while a really well done thought-experiment tickles my intellectual fancy, it's always the emotional part which really makes a story stick with me. So, the novellas win in that department. Unless you can write a theme/mood that has immediate emotional impact, which then combined with the plot, in a sense, feels like a character arc.

I've seen you do this with your flash, Bryan, but honestly I think you're a master of this, and it's something very hard for most writers to master (which is not to say that it's not something to strive for!). You are exceptional at creating mood and theme without resorting to cliche or stereotype (which create the theme, but the mood is flat). Your stories, literally, emote! With that grabbing the reader firmly by the throat, you can then play out the events with (relatively) simple plot and produce a work of emotional richness.

Voila! Short fiction at its finest.

(I may have to stick to writing long shorts, until I can figure out how to do this myself. :))

Matthew MacNish said...

There's not much to add to Susan's comment.

You are certainly a master of it.

In fact, it wasn't until she started writing about this, that I realized I'd never truly written a short story. Plenty of short fiction, mostly vignettes, but never much with a true plot.

D.G. Hudson said...

I've written a few short stories, but no short fiction and flash fiction. I prefer writing novels, or novellas.

Short stories are about as short as I want to go, right now.

Writing succinctly is an art.

Ted Cross said...

I find writing novels comes naturally. I'm not saying I'm great at it yet, but I have no trouble doing the writing. I'm struggling like mad with writing decent short stories, though.

Jenni Wiltz said...

Two years of grad school (and 30K of student debt) did teach me some great techniques for crafting awesome short stories.

The best strategy I've come across is skilled avoidance. You have to figure out how *not* to say what you want to say. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it works.

The characters have to fight like mad *not* to say what they truly feel, what they truly want. My best stories are the ones where characters don't answer each other's questions, can't explain how they feel, and don't want to say what makes them uncomfortable. The reader gets to read between the lines, which I find fun, and if you use this technique right, it creates some deliciously subtle tales.