When you’re writing a short story you obviously have to limit your focus compared to what you might explore in a longer work. While it’s always possible to cover ground quickly — “The Wilson family lived in New England for seven generations” — at some point you to have to dramatize specific scenes and populate them with fully realized characters. In a short story there’s only so much room to do so.
In this section Hills is concerned with the focusing power that comes from authorial clarity. He doesn’t argue that authors should have everything nailed down before they start writing, or even that authors will have clarity about their own work as they write. Rather, he simply encourages writers to recognize that the limited literary real estate of a short story requires focusing on aspects that are crucial:
A short story writer seeks to isolate those events that are most significant and then focus on them. The sequences that are most important he’ll render in detail, dramatizing them in scenes so as to bring them to life.
From this you might conclude that short stories are limiting while novels are liberating. In a sense you’re right. Novels have more pages, and more pages equals more drama if only in a quantitative sense. But quality counts in fiction, and giving an author more pages doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a better story. A longer story, yes, but not necessarily a better one.
More is More
If you give yourself five hundred pages to roam, but you bring no focus to those pages, the effect may read like an enjoyable drive in the country but it’s unlikely you will impart any real dramatic force. Conversely, you may only have fifteen or sixteen pages in a short story, but in those limited pages you can use the power of focus (through effective authorial selection) to make a considerable dramatic impression.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a painter. Before you are two canvases: one 2×3 feet, the other 2×3 miles. If you choose the small canvas you can only use green, white and black paint. If you choose the large canvas you will be given endless gallons of every imaginable color. Which canvas would you choose? More importantly, do you think either canvas would make it impossible for you to paint something memorable/powerful?
Bigger isn’t better, it’s just more. More room, yes, but also more responsibility. Scale may solve one problem, but it creates others, and that’s as true in literature as it is in mass-market fiction. Or music. (It’s no accident that there aren’t a lot of great forty-minute songs.)
In my own writing life it took me a while to realize that stories exist apart from any particular medium. When thinking about a new story the first question I now ask is which medium would be best. Is it a play? A screenplay? A novel? A short story? The ability to recognize crucial elements/moments helps me answer that question, along with many of the dramatic questions that inevitably follow.
Next up: Naming the Moment.
— Mark Barrett