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Short Fiction vs. Novel

by Carmen Ruggero

I have no formal training in writing. I’ve learned the art of writing fiction, not through “how to” books, though I do have them and read them, nor by taking college courses, but by reading the works of writers I admire. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers and Lawrence Durrell were my early influences. Hemingway, McCullers, and Lee, being the strongest, because I seem to relate to the stories they tell, and I definitely like their style.

A long time ago, I wrote a story titled: “Too Late For The Early News.” In it, I tell how one event leading to another amounted to the experience I now apply to my writing.

From books, such as Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, for example, I learned form, such as how to express coordinate ideas in similar form, keeping related words together, how to avoid successions of loose sentences, etc. From literary masters, I learned how to tell a story.

But perhaps one of the strongest influences in my life as a writer — though as a career I had considered it to be a failure — was my work as a stage actress.

A play cannot succeed without a plot. It needs a scheme, structure, conflict, a definite beginning, an advancing plot, and a strong conclusion. It needs purpose, believable characters, and deliberate dialogue. All of these elements are found in successful writing. They are tools I use to the best of my ability. In a three-act play — roughly one and a half hours — every second counts. We can’t have dead spots with needless dialogue.

As an actor, I learned to create an inner life for the characters I played. Otherwise I would have ended up simply speaking words that no one would believe. So I write biographies for the characters in my stories. In other words, I approach writing as if I was directing a play. If it makes me laugh or cry, it will do the same for the readers.

A most important element in acting is timing. As writers, we need to know when a scene has reached a conclusion. When we have said enough and one more word will simply spoil it. When we need to jump to something else, when to insert a flashback, or simply go to a paragraph. If what we write does not advance the plot, it’s dead space-filler.

As an actor, I also learned to utilize real-life experience. We think before we act and, consequently, we act with purpose, not because we’re simply following stage directions. We open the refrigerator because we want food. Nothing is done unless we think it first.

The same applies to the characters we write. Some might find this funny, but when I write a scene between two or more characters, I act it out aloud. If the dialogue seems inconsistent, contrived, or out of character, I kill it. In other words, I talk to myself. That’s why my office is downstairs: for privacy.

I know not everyone has had a background on the stage, but we’ve all seen plenty of films or stage plays to know that those elements are there.

Structure and economy of words are valuable tools for a writer. And this takes me to the heart of this article, “Short Fiction vs. Novel.” There is tremendous value in learning to write short fiction.

About a year ago, I worked on the pre-edits of a novel by a first-time writer. His story kept falling apart with trite sentences, awkward dialogue, and descriptions that weakened his otherwise good plot. I kept cutting, he kept on adding. I suggested he let the novel rest and write short fiction for a while to get the idea behind the economy of words. His reply was that short fiction was a waste of time.

Think again. When we have to include all the elements that make a piece of fiction work — plot conflict, etc. — in under 1,000 words, we’ve learned the guts of effective story writing. Too many developing writers rush into a novel with a weak story line and do nothing but fill pages with meaningless words. They lose track of plot, and leave us with a weak ending.

Length and quality are not synonymous. If we’ve written 10,000 words which neither inform the reader nor advance the plot, we’ve just filled space without purpose and killed what could have been a good story.

A full-length novel needs a good subject, a good story, a plot, several subplots, conflict, one or two main characters, and several minor characters; and a strong beginning and ending. As developing writers, if we don’t learn these skills through short fiction, how are we going to keep track of 75,000 — 100,000 words? Some have. Those who succeed are people of rare and extraordinary talent.

I have trouble with beginnings and endings. I always have to rewrite my beginnings, after finishing the story. Endings are equally important, and they need not be elaborate. They simply need to make the point and tie up the story. I’m struggling right now, with the ending of my own novel.

In the final words of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee Harper, speaking of Atticus, simply writes:

“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

This is simple enough. But the character of Atticus was so well developed throughout the book that such an ending was most appropriate.

Copyright © 2006 by Carmen Ruggero

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