Wordsmith Wednesday–Short Story or Novel?


Image by J. Paxon Reyes via Flickr

It’s 3 AM and you’ve jolted awake with an idea for a story. You drag yourself out of bed and jot down the rough details of the plot and maybe a short sketch of a character or two before slithering back between the covers and allowing your body and brain to crash. When you awaken to the alarm a few hours later you have the vague remembrance of a visit by the creative muse. When you retrieve your notes, you’re surprised and can hardly wait to get to work and begin writing your next (or first) bestseller novel. Or should it be a short story?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you answer that question.

  • How many characters will occupy my opus? Short stories tend to include one or, perhaps, two main characters. Secondary characters will be few or there may be none at all. Think of Tolstoy’s voluminous novel War and Peace with its cast of over 70 major characters. Compare that to O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi with only the husband and wife in starring roles.
  • What period of time will I cover in my work? In general, a short story will focus on a very short, well-defined period of time whereas a novel can cover months, years or even generations. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is spread out over years preceding and surrounding the Civil War while Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story A Temporary Inconvenience unfolds in a period of less than a week.
  • What about my story arc–are there any subplots? In the short story A Temporary Inconvenience a young married couple who has lost a baby is forced to communicate when their electricity is shut off for a few days. This will determine the outcome of their relationship. In my novel, Winter is Past, my protagonist Claire has to deal with the life-threatening illness of her best friend, a family secret and her mother’s plunge in to alcoholism only to mention a few of the story lines.

Keep in mind that you are not wed for life to one form or the other. It may happen that what begins as a short story with a simple plot will develop layers of complexity that evolve into a novel. This happens when characters are given free rein and suggest subplots or other characters to you as you write. Some authors have taken short stories as the skeleton on which to hang the flesh of a novel. On the other hand, it may happen that a failed chapter, scene or character from a work in progress will suggest a short story. That’s exactly what happened to me with one of the first drafts of my novel. In choosing novel over short story or vice versa, you have a sense of how to begin. But once the wheels are in motion, don’t be afraid to let your muse guide you where she will.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Spice Up Your Characters!

Spices from Gujarat

Image by Sudhamshu via Flickr

No matter the genre you write, you want to create compelling characters. These are the companions that will accompany your reader on the journey throughout your novel or story, and if they lack interest or personality, who will want them as travel companions?

In previous posts, we spoke about character motivation, emotional expression, relationships, point of view, personality types, and the importance of avoiding stereotypes. Today, let’s review some of these and take a look at a few more spices you can throw in the mix to (as Emeril would say) kick it up a notch.

  • Don’t allow your characters to become predictable. Surprise your reader by having your introverted protagonist take center stage at a party. Allow your victim-martyr to throw a temper tantrum. Make your malleable co-dependent cling stubbornly to her opinion or stand firm for a cause she believes in.
  • Give your character a deep, dark secret. A secret will add dimension to one or more of your major characters. How about a hidden problem with addiction or a history of childhood sexual, emotional or physical abuse. Maybe an illicit liaison or desire, an unacknowledged sin or a pattern of self-deception will add complexity. Does your hero have an unmet desire or obsession? Any of these will influence his behavior in a number of ways and make the reader want to discover more.
  • Allow her to be vulnerable. Focus in on a fear or weakness with which your reader can identify and that may get in the way of your characters attaining their goals. Create empathy and identification.
  • Give them an enemy. You don’t want everyone in the story to be supportive of your protagonists on their road to achieving what they want. How about a boss who stands in the way of her success? A girlfriend who sabotages her? A lover who criticizes or demeans? Make sure there are some bumps on the road to success.
  • Identify major, secondary and minor characters and proceed accordingly. Spend more time and effort on those who play central roles in your work, but don’t neglect the nosy neighbor, the first wife or the usual suspect who turns out to be a false lead.

These are just a handful of devices to make your characters more textured and appealing to those who will travel with them. I find it helpful to harvest personality characteristics from people I’ve known throughout my lifetime, being careful, of course, to keep them unidentifiable.

I invite you to take a look at some of the older posts in Wordsmith Wednesday that deal with characterization. I believe that writing complex, compelling characters is one of the most important keys to successful fiction.Have fun with the people you create!

Wordsmith Wednesday–Character Motivation

ink and pencil sketch of fictional character

Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever met someone who doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere in life? We might call these people lazy. A risk of retirement (as I’ve encountered among some people of my generation) is the failure to develop goals or interests they will pursue when their time is no longer dominated by the demands of the workplace. People who have no sense of direction in life can come across as b-o-r-i-n-g. The same can be true of fictional characters we develop if they fail to show motivation. 

Have you ever set aside a novel or short story on account of a character who falls flat? Chances are, that’s because the author has not engaged you right off the bat by presenting a protagonist who has to face challenges in order to get something he or she wants. The driving force behind a character needs to show up early in the manuscript–I’d say within the first chapter at the latest. A novel that begins with lengthy description or back story is likely to be abandoned.

How do you, as a writer, define a character’s motivation? You should have a sense of a story arc, of the beginning and end of the novel (if not all the stuff in between). You want to see that the protagonist will have changed in some way by the end of the story. You want him to meet obstacles that he will face in order to obtain what he wants. So, ask yourself, What drives him forward?

Let’s consider some of the very basic character motivators:

  • Solving a mystery
  • Finding love
  • Avoiding death or pain
  • Saving the world
  • Overcoming a handicap or limitation
  • Achieving success
  • Growing up
  • and…you name it!

If you are unable to define your character’s motivation, perhaps you are not ready to write that novel. Be clear about the desires and needs that underlie his actions.

Don’t forget, it’s not only the protagonist who needs to have motivation. Consider this: if your hero is a detective and wants to catch the bad guy, what does that antagonist want? To avoid being caught? To get away with his crime? Maybe to kill the detective? Peoples motives conflict and that adds to the tension of the story.

Finally, when you are in the process of revising and editing your manuscript, ask yourself as you review each and every scene, How does this play into my characters’ motives? If you are unable to define the purpose of the scene with clarity, chances are you need to delete it. Or rewrite it to give it relevance in the context of the story.

By becoming aware of the play of motivation in your story and character development, you will have more success in creating a manuscript that moves the plot forward with characters who capture the attention of the reader. You will not be boring.