Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Long For a Bungalow...

            Long overdue pop culture reference.
            Every now and then I hear or read statements by people that there’s no real difference between writing a short story and writing a novel.  It’s all the same skills, they say, and it’s working toward the same goal, so working on one can only make you better at the other.
            I disagree with this, for the most part.  It’s a sloppy comparison, the kind that makes people say alligators and crocodiles are the same thing, or unemployment benefits and socialism.  There are some basic similarities, yes, but short stories and novels are two very different animals and they have to be dealt with in different ways.  Housecats and Bengal tigers have a lot of things in common, too, but if I find one in my living room when I wasn’t expecting it, it leads to one of two very different phone calls.  If I call the wrong person over to deal with it... well, one way or another, they’re going to be very annoyed.
            Here’s a better way to compare short stories and novels.  It’s not super-informative, but it should get your brain working on a few issues.  It came from a discussion between my lovely lady and I, and it’s such a solid analogy we then had some sharp words (well, not very sharp) about who actually came up with it after we’d been bouncing it back and forth for a while.  I shall split credit and say we came up with it, to be fair.
            What did we come up with?
            Carpentry.
            A good number of you reading this had to take some kind of shop class as kids, I bet.  You may have also belonged to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or some other group that did crafts at some point.  So I’m betting that a fair amount of you have held a hammer, driven a nail, and maybe even cut a board with a saw.
            A few of you may have even built a birdhouse.
            Birdhouses are pretty basic things.  Four sides, floor, perhaps a two-sided roof if you get fancy.  They generally have one entrance and not many features past that little peg for the birds use to land on or launch from.  I think I built two at different points in my childhood.  Although I think one was made out of a plastic milk jug, so it doesn’t count for our purposes today.
            So, all you scouts and shop students... is building a birdhouse the same thing as building a real house?
            Once I jump up in scale like that, there’s a huge design difference.  A five-inch square wall can hold itself up, but one that’s 9’ X 14’ needs a real framework.  That framework also needs to account for windows, interior doors, and possibly even supporting a second floor.  Heck, I’m probably going to depend on the framework even more—a birdhouse wall can just be a piece of wood, but for a house I’ll probably use two by fours covered with drywall or plaster.
            Plus there’s all sorts of extra details in a full-sized house.  I’ve got wiring, insulation, plumbing, and possibly cable to deal with.  Maybe tilework in the bathrooms and kitchen.  Central air if I’m feeling especially sinful.
            (Bonus points if you get that reference)
            Even my tools change.  A hammer and hand saw might work for a birdhouse, but for a full-size job I’m probably going to want a nail gun and some power tools because I need to be working at a different pace.  A table saw would be nice.  A level is very important.  Plus all the specialty tools for that drywall, wiring, and plumbing we were just talking about.
            The basic skills are the same, but what I do with them is completely different.
            This works both ways, too.  The blueprints for birdhouses are ridiculously basic things, assuming I even use any.  Half the time they’re not even drafted—just sketched out rough on a scrap of paper.  It’s not worth putting in any more planning than that because the actual construction takes so little time that the planning phase can completely overwhelm it.
            Past all that, what would you think of a birdhouse with drywall, plumbing, and cable?  It’d be a curiosity, yeah, but would you actually buy it?  I probably wouldn’t.  Hell, how would I hook it up once you hung it in the back yard?  And do you know how much it would weight if I framed the whole thing?  The whole support system for this thing just went from being a hook and eyebolt to a length of chain with a few bolts through it.
            Hopefully you all get where I’m going with this.
            Y’see, Timmy, I can’t approach writing a short story the same way I would a novel.  Each one has a very different structureElements that work on a small scale don’t work on a larger scale, and vice-versa.  While you can get away with less-detailed characters in one, they seem false in the other.
            How do you make it work?  Well... that’s still something each of us needs to figure out for ourselves.  This was just a reminder not to put a jacuzzi in your birdhouse.  And maybe to give your new home more than one hole in the front for a door.
            Next time, I’ll have something new for you to look at.  Or listen to.  Or something.
            Until then, go write.

10 comments:

Bobbie Metevier said...

And Timmy! If I might add, just because it's short doesn't mean the characters shouldn't be fleshed out.

Hah! I missed the pop culture ref.

Virtual Stranger said...

They should be, absolutely, but in a short story I probably shouldn't have a ten page flashback explaining why Timmy doesn't like spinach (unless that's my whole story). That's too much fleshing out for a short.

The birdhouse needs walls, yes, but it doesn't need drywall, insulation, an electrical outlet, and a thermostat.

Matthew Baugh said...

I've had a similar thought. I liken a short story to a sprint and a novel to a marathon.

(I missed the pop culture reference too)

:-(

Virtual Stranger said...

It's Eddie Izzard, damn it! From his Dress to Kill show. He was talking about how everyone in England (supposedly) has castles and they all want small homes.

:)

Bobbie Metevier said...

Ha! And I've seen the Izzard show too!

Anonymous said...

Dude, grammar police:

"It came from a discussion between my lovely lady and I..."

Shouldn't it be 'between my lovely lady and me'?

Sebastián Lalaurette said...

I don't think all characters necessarily need to be "fleshed out" in a short story. Sometimes the brilliance lies in having this person who essentially is no more than an appearance, a moment of epiphany or a spark in a single page. I'm not talking about secondary characters, but about what can very well be a crucial element in a short text.

A novel, on the contrary, is more like a movie, where you need to "see" the characters. So, this kind of thing tends not to work.

Just my two cents...

Lane Adamson said...

I think it fair to point out that the difference in scale between novels and short stories doesn't necessarily equate to a difference in the labor required to produce either (unlike birdhouses and homes).

Like a poem (another oft under-appreciated undertaking), a good piece of short fiction can be equated to a polished diamond. The end result is nothing like the initial lump of imagination.

Virtual Stranger said...

Anon--Yeah, I don't know how that happened. I could try to excuse it by bringing up the casual, conversational tone I try to keep here, but let's just be honest... I was probably drunk. I'll leave it as is to serve as a reminder.

Lane--A fair point, yes, but I don't think it quite relates to what I was talking about. The work and labor to produce a short (vs a novel) is an entirely separate aspect, and I also think it's far too individual to try to offer guidelines on it past, well, the basic Golden Rule.

Harlequin_Felis said...

Ahhh. No pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater than earning my bonus reference points :P