What follows is an edited version of an email I sent my friend Ian regarding the difference between categories of fiction, and how one develops or limits them--if one happens to be me.
You know, and not everybody's a short story writer. It's an entirely different form from noveling. As different as poetry is from essay writing.
And short stories teach you sentence-level like nothing else. Short stories teach focus and sentence level craftsmanship and how to cut down to the vital details. They teach how to feel a beat, and dive on it.
Novels teach how to maintain tension, how to escalate it, how to develop ideas to their logical maximum, how to test to destruction. Push and keep pushing is the rule for novels; the rule for short stories is limit, limit, limit.
(Epic novels--novels over about 200K--are also a different form. They *work* differently than novels of around 80K)
And there's a difference between a good long novel and an IQF1. *g* See the difference between The Lord Of The Rings and (Insert hated fantasy hack of your choice's name here)'s magnum opiate for an example. Whether or not you like Tolkien's style, he's got enough plot to carry his story--and it's all genuine plot. In fact, there's so damned much plot that a lot of subplots are just implied, rather than being developed. A lot of that is a feature of the style; we don't need to be shown that Roland and Oliver are best-friends and shield-brothers, because we accept that in the epic tradition of which the Song Of Roland partakes, that relationship will develop.
But the threads of subplots are there, available to be teased out--as Peter Jackson did, although by no means in the only manner possible.
Whereas, (Insert Hack Here) has no plot. People wander about aimlessly, masturbating and generating angst and false conflict, especially through that most hated of tension-generating devices, the Stupid Misunderstanding. (Why can't characters have honestly differing goals and opinions?)
Tolkien's characters have *traction.*
Now that I've got two monster stories under my belt--The Hammered/Scardown/Worldwired trilogy at about 360K for the whole thing (which is really all one arc) and The Stratford Man (which will probably be published as two books, and weighs in around 290K)--I've learned--well, let me start at the bottom.
A flash piece generally has one theme, one powerful image, one central thread, an internal conflict and an external conflict, maybe, but no room for subplots there. A flash story is aptly named, because to work it relies on the reader's aha moment, rather than conflict and resolution. Flash stories work like jokes, in other words--setup and punchline. (There are stories as long as 2 or 3K that work this way--Ursula le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is a setup-and-punchline story. But I don't write that well. *g*)
A short story--as (Fortean Bureau editor) Jeremy Tolbert (tar_pith) says--usually stands on three legs. An example of the three legs might be--a character situation (internal conflict), an external conflict, and an SFnal idea, in our genre. And for the short story to be *strong,* the three things have to inform each other, and each one should comment on the theme. However, in a short story (1K-7K, say) there's not a lot of room for subplots. Focus has to stay on the central issue.
Novelettes can add a fourth thread, maybe a fifth. One additional conflict or subplot that comments on the first, or two characters working the same problem. There's room to explore a side element of the theme, but the conflicts should remain closely tied. So basically they're two very similar short stories wound around each other. *g*
Novellas, I presume, have a slightly higher level of complexity--more legs, more complexly developed. But I don't actually know; I've never written a novella. I thought I had one, but it grew out from under me, and is looking like a shortish novel now.
Novels have even more of the limits taken off of them. Subplots can be developed with glee, actions have repercussions, things break and can't be fixed, relationships and ideas can be tested to destruction and then rebuilt and twisted another way. There's a *lot* of room to play in a novel, and I think it's a natural form for people (like katallen and pkhardy) who tend to think very hard about the *implications* of things. "If X then Y, and if Y then... Q. Oh, hell."
Neil Gaiman's American Gods has the short stories tidily set off from the narrative arc--or some of them, anyway, so you can see how they inform the body of the story much more plainly than if they were subplots wound through the whole.
The drawback is that if you don't develop a thread, you need an excuse, or you need to tie it off somehow.
Also, I tend to think that short stories end just before the pivot--they end strongest *at* a moment of realization, at a crisis point, rather than with a bit of denouement and wrap-up, which is generally more satisfying in a novel. Novels take some cool-down time.
*g* Epic novels--by which I mean things like LotR, and oh, Watership Down probably qualifies, and The World According To Garp, and so forth (so I don't mean epic in the sense of space battles and so forth, but in the sense of scope--and scope can be microscopic as easily as macroscopic) have to have things going on on all these levels--which is to say, really, that every scene in a novel (in my estimation) needs a small arc, and every collection of scenes or chapters needs a longer arc, and every novel-sized chunk needs a novel's worth of arc, and the whole over-arching thing needs an arc that ties all those little arcs together. And the thing is, a novelette's worth of arc can be spread out in a subplot through an entire novel, starting on page three and ending on page four hundred, a paragraph and a sentence and a bit of subtext at a time. Oh, Mary Gentle's Ancient Light. Another epic novel. And that one's a good example because you can break down the novels it contains by genre; it's got a love story in it, and a spy novel, an a murder mystery, and a first contact SF novel, and a fantasy quest novel, too. Just packed.
But there has to be something that unites the disparate elements, and they have to revolve around a common center, or what you have isn't a novel (whether its 80K or 800) but a kludge. And that applies to short stories too--that's what theme is: it's the subconscious understandings that arise in the reader as perspectives are demonstrated by the various threads of the fictional arc--the various conflicts and relationships.
It all ties into the 'shape' of the story, its rise and fall, the weight it has in the writer's and the reader's mind. Literally, the way it makes you *feel*.Now, of course, this probably isn't the only way to think about these structures. But it's the one that works for me.
1Interminable Quest Fantasy
Progress Notes for 17 November 2004:
New Words: 1630
Total Words: 69092
Reason for stopping: I need to chew on this stuff and what order it comes in, and stuff.
Mammalian Assistance: Marlowe on the mousepad.
Stimulants: Um. No wonder I'm thirsty.
Tyop du jour: Enough ghosts there to fuzz up anybody's censors
Darling du jour: There wasn't much left of the old Kiel Ranch.
Books in progress: Ed Sanders, Tales of Beatnik Glory
Other writing-related work: Wrote a huge long essay on writing stuff. See above.