Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Does One Size Fit You?

You may wonder whether your literary piece would best be presented as a poem, an epic novel, or something in between.

Every format is unique, but there are some surprising similarities.  Depending on what you plan to convey to the reader, one format may appeal to you more than another.

Let's take a look at the literary spectrum and define each:
  • POEM:  Poems are often the most compact pieces in fiction.  First and foremost, the focus is on the language, its rhythm and the emotion it evokes.  Poetry is not usually about character development and plot; it's about the words.  Words that rhyme or sound a certain way can dramatically change the overall effect of a poem.
  • FLASH:  Yeah, I know what you're thinking...get your mind out of the gutter!  Flash Fiction, (or sometimes called a Short Short Story), is a story format composed in less than 1500 words.  It can be impossibly short.  Hemingway is often credited with his six word story conjured up for a wager.  "For sale:  Baby shoes, never worn."
  • SHORT STORY:  A Short Story is generally comprised of 1500-25,000 words.  Usually this type of story is centered upon one major event, few characters, and has no room for subplots.  I particularly enjoy reading short stories because they can be read in their entirely in a single sitting.  The prolific writer, Ray Bradbury offered advice to write a short story in a single sitting.  That way, even as a draft, it would have a common "skin" around it.
  • NOVELLA:  Novellas are usually between 25,000-50,000 words.  They are the Goldilocks of the literary world.  Between the length and complexity of a short story and a novel.  To some readers, they are "just right".  Novellas are popular in some genres, like Young Adult.  When I was in fifth grade, I loved The Great Brain novellas by John Dennis Fitzgerald.  Another example of a novella would be George Orwell's Animal Farm.
  • NOVEL:  Novels can be between 50,000-150,000 words in length.  A novel is a long narrative story.  Novels allow for minor characters, subplots, and backstories to be explored, sometimes for chapters at a time.  Reading a novel takes time and is an investment for the reader.  It's all about the experience.
  • EPIC:  An Epic Novel is longer than 150,000 words in length.  Its plot can span many years or require telling the stories of many, many different characters.  In some genres, such as science fiction, a novel may simply have more words because of the required "world building" in sci-fi and thus becomes an Epic Novel.  However, an epic novel is typically more complex than a novel.  Notable examples of epic novels are Moby Dick, War and Peace, and Stephen King's The Stand.
So, what do all these have in common?  Obviously, they all require words.  And the shorter the piece, the more carefully selected the words are.  But there's something else...every literary form also has a structure to it.  This is something that is as fundamental as the eight corners are to every puzzle in the picture above.

A poem has structure determined either, by lines and stanzas, or visually as it is laid out on the page.  The structure of the other literary formats tends to require the ingredients of a "story".  Where does your story fit along the spectrum above?  A story...any story, should be just long enough to convey the shorter, no longer.

Okay, that's a pretty vague answer, but what do you wish to convey to the reader?  More emotion, or more of an immersive experience?  Knowing that should help you to decide how long your piece should be and which format to use. 

Of course, it's not always cut and dry.  J.R.R. Tolkien originally wrote The Lord of the Rings as an Epic Novel, but his publisher decided to break it up into smaller chunks due to paper shortages during World War II.

The great thing about writing fiction is that similar techniques can be used and adapted for the different formats.  Look at the picture above again.  Cube enthusiasts will tell you that each of these puzzles offers a unique set of challenges, but they also share a common thread...a common approach.  You can solve the larger cubes by simplifying them until they look like a scrambled Rubik's Cube and then solve it the same way as a 3x3.  And you can do that with fiction, too.  A story is a story.  There will tend to be a protagonist, he will struggle with some type of obstacle, and the story will be resolved in some way.

A popular misconception is that "shorter" means easier and that authors "progress" from shorter to longer pieces.  One format is not superior to another.  It can tend to take more time to write a novel versus a short story, but it is not necessarily any more challenging than the shorter forms.

In fact, Blaise Pascal's quote, (translated from French,) sums it up perfectly,
"I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter."
Authors may decide to write in any part of the spectrum for a variety of reasons.  There are certainly notable examples of writers that have stayed strictly within one narrow category, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But there can also be joy in loving the uniqueness of every form.  If you learn about the structure and techniques typically applied to the different literary formats it may even help you become "unstuck" with a particular piece you might be struggling with.  But, ultimately, it's up to you to decide where you want your piece to fit.

So does one size fit you?  Or will you try them all out?

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