Short story v. novel, which is best?
If I were to describe myself professionally, it would be as a novelist. I write books. When I began writing seriously, I didn’t start with the shorts. I plunged straight in with a standard, 90,000 + word mystery novel.
I took this path, largely because it is full length books that I enjoy reading most. I certainly have worked my way through many anthologies of short stories and prose in my time, but I have always found something lacking in them. I think it might be that the constraints placed on the author by a limited word count mean it is difficult to fully develop the characters, or to subtly and gradually draw you into the story.
So, when I decided to write a short story to accompany my series of mystery novels, I was faced with something of a challenge. I wanted the piece to be a self-contained story, with all of the usual components of a full-blown book. It needed to introduce new characters whilst maintaining the dynamic between the usual protagonists. The puzzle itself had to be just as well-plotted and full of red-herrings as it would be over 300 pages. As I began the task, to be honest, I didn’t believe it was possible.
In fact, I really enjoyed the process. I found it quite liberating. I was able to quickly come up with a tight plot which I thought would successfully pan out over 50 pages. I didn’t need to consider whether the storyline was strong enough to support a whole novel, I could simply revel in the writing. The bit I liked best of all, was experiencing that wonderful sense of satisfaction you get with the ‘big reveal’ at the end of the book, far sooner than I would usually have done. I could really get used to that – its a form of near instant gratification.
Suddenly, I understood the appeal. In only an hour, the reader receives the edification provided by a neatly solved mystery. They get an insight into the characters they already recognise and identify with. The author might also drop in a little tit-bit of information that they aren’t planning on putting into the books. It’s simply a pleasant little treat, without too much effort required on anybody’s side.
So now I am re-thinking my long-held bias towards full-length books. It’s always going to be my preferred genre, but I’m keeping an open mind. Like the short stories and novellas of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ( which I loved as a child), there is certainly a place for shorter fiction and I will definitely be exploring the format again in the near future.