The Long and Short of Writing

J. K. ROWLING MAY HAVE single-handedly resurrected the long novel for both young and not so young readers. Before Harry Potter worked his magic, the idea of a fifth grader reading a 784-page book over one weekend was unimaginable. Unless you include me reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire one Saturday but there were extenuating circumstances: I was a geek and the bookmobile lady said I couldn’t check out any more books unless it was returned that day.

Ironically, many classics are not long at all by modern standards. A Tale of Two Cities, one of Dickens’ longest is half that of Book 7 in the Potter series. Faulkner’s, Sound and the Fury is barely over 300 pages. Or compare the average length of Presidential State of the Union addresses:

  • James K. Polk (18,104)
  • William Howard Taft (22,614)
  • Bill Clinton (7426)
  • Barak Obama (7001)
  • Ronald Reagan (4596)

Politics aside, one of those five is still known as The Great Communicator and it surely isn’t James K. Polk.

In the end, what matters is not the number of pages in a book or words in a speech. Of importance, is whether a speaker or book says what needs to be said. Harper Lee, whose is 90 miles from where I live only wrote one novel. When asked why she didn’t write anything after To Kill a Mockingbird, she reportedly said, “Because I haven’t had anything else to say.”

Steven JamesThe truth is, people often talk long after they have anything worth saying and too many writers pile on words that do nothing to propel their story. Steven James offers invaluable advice for fiction writers, in Story Trumps Structure, when he points out some common plot problems that revolve around the issue of too much. Among these are:

  • Too much Repetition
  • Too much Description
  • Too many Unnecessary Scenes
  • Too much information on Minor Characters, Places, or Things
  • Too many Flashbacks
  • Too much Self-Reflection
  • Too much Time Spent on Transitions
  • Too much Story after the Resolution

I have read The Brothers Karamazov twice and Dostoyevsky, like most Russian authors, never met a short story he liked. And, like those who read it, I have never forgotten the struggles and ideals of the brothers and am sure their story could have been told no other way. 

Until recently, the short story and anthologies had all but fallen by the wayside and were the kiss of death when it came to queries to publishers. As much as I like “big” stories and sweeping epics, it is good to see the return of the novella to favor. Perhaps that’s why I published my latest novella of 90 pages. That, and it really is a lot easier to live up to one’s goals when writing a more compact tale. 

At issue here, is not the length of the book but the completeness of the story. A Christmas Carol is little more than a novella but Ebenezer Scrooge is burned into our collective conscience. Hannibal Lecter only has 16 minutes of dialogue in Silence of the Lambs yet Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his portrayal of the killer.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. – Flannery O’Connor

Whether you like Southern Gothic or not, O’Connor knew how to tell a story with a minimum of words. You may not be a writer and don’t even read much fiction but there is much to learn here for all of us. Are movies better because they are longer and in 3D? Has journalism improved with the 24-hour news cycle and its endless parade of talking heads? Many arguments would end if one or both parties learned to say what they needed to say and shut up.

Wouldn’t it be great if the commentator came back after the first commercial and said, “Well, I have nothing more worth saying on the matter so take some time to enjoy these gorgeous shots of the ocean.”

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