JMS on Usenet


Subject: Re: ATTN: JMS - Short Stories
Date: Fri, 12 Aug 2005 06:10:19 +0000 (UTC)

John Jr wrote:
> Hi!
> I wonder if you (or anyone here) could give me some insight to SF short
> story writing.  I have read Analog and Asimov's for a while now and
> find that the short stories that are published there as well as short
> stories by other authors and I find that I seem unable to come up with
> an idea that is short story-ish.  Do you think that the short story has
> a different purpose than the novel or are they similar but of different
> lengths.
> It seems to me that if you read a novel you will read a story that is
> very fleshed out with character development and weaving plotlines, etc
> and the thing the story is about below the plot is able to come out
> gradually and almost subconciously.  The short story seems to hit the
> reader in the face with the thesis behind the story.  In other words
> the short story subjugates characters and complicated plot to the
> blatant "meaning" of the story?
> To be blunt and give an unrefined explanation of what I mean, the short
> story seems more likely to be disturbing or extremely moving or
> extremely thought provoking.  Where as a novel length story does the
> same thing more subtley.
> Is it possible for someone to be able to write novels and produce
> viable ideas for a novel but not a short story?  I hear it very often
> that short stories are the way to start but my ideas seems too big.
> Any insight would be MUCH appreciated,
> John

For me, the nature of the story determines its length.  It's really a
matter of how much time it takes to tell, and how much effort you have
to put into the characters and details for the greatest impact.  There
are some things you know are just not long enough to sustain a novel.

A short story is meant to do one thing, and do it well..whatever that
one thing happens to be: communicating a theme, creating a character,
hitting with an interesting plot or gimmick or device.  It's like a
drive-by shooting, you get one shot and you have to hit the target.  By
contrast, in a novel you get to do more of those things, and you can do
them in combination with one another because there's room to play.  The
flip-side is that you don't have to sustain this very long in a short
story, whereas in a novel you really have to work to hold the reader's
interest over the course of 400 pages or so.  There are stories and
plot gimmicks that a reader will consent to stick around for in short
formm, where he or she isn't investing a lot of time, that they
wouldn't tackle in a much longer form.

For instance, the short story I have coming out in a few months in the
Book of Dark Wisdom anthology, "The Darkness BetweEn the Stars," could
not sustain a novel in its current iteration.  You could *make* it a
novel by dragging in a lot more characters and doing what's essential
in all forms of prose writing, asking the next logical question, but
thematically I don't think it would really sustain.  It was written to
have a punch at the end, to ask a particular question, and pose a
thematic issue regarding the intersection between science and theology
(a common theme with me) and then run like hell.