Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Story Telling as a Walk in the Woods

Anticipating a meeting with my critique partners to discuss the latest draft of a novella I've been working on, I found myself wondering why I find it easier to write short than long. I've had a handful (four) short stories published in paying markets, and the writing of them went relatively smoothly and painlessly, while writing my novels has required years and seemingly endless revisions.

With a short story or novella I can see the shape of the story more easily. The story's overall structure and its relation to the interior scenes and details that contribute to said structure all seem more readily apparent to me with a short story. I can see the tree, its limbs and leaves as a whole thing.

With a novel, it's more like looking at a forest, but then having to continually change focus and perspective to assess the relationship of the forest to the trees. Individual scenes and chapters need to work at their own level while furthering the overall story. It's too easy to get caught up at the level of the scene and lose track of how it contributes to the story, or too easy to pull back, trying to get a sense of how it all fits together and fail to appreciate the vital details that make reading the story an engaging experience.

The mistake is in wanting to stay too long at either focal range. Telling the story requires a continual shifting of perspective between the immediate and the overall, between the forest and the trees. As a visual artist I look continually between the overall impact of a drawing, the dynamics of how elements relate to the page, and the detailed rendering of those elements. What is the arc of that curve of a chin, and how does it fit with the shape of the head in relation to the bounding box of the page? In telling a story there's a similar need to consider how each detail, each scrap of dialog and description contributes to the overall shape and impact of the story. The task is more complex in a novel, but just as vital in a short story. As an artist, I tend to see that overall structure as maplike, something seen from above and at a distance, but as a writer, I need to reveal the overall shape of the forest through immersion, leading the reader over the topography to feel the character of it from within.

And this need to consider such interrelationships extends to the level of sentences.  I often find myself wanting to say too much all at once. I want the tree to convey the forest. I want the reader to know my characters from the get go, with their back-stories and motivations all laid out up front. It's a challenge to hold back and let the story unfold, revealing the hidden glades and sudden morasses only as we go along. Sometimes I want a single sentence to do the work of a paragraph, and so create huge convoluted passages as entangled as any bramble patch. But this doesn't tangle up my characters so much as my readers.

The story is a path through the forest, and I'm a guide. It's my job to lead the expedition through the wilderness, pointing out the most striking trees, useful herbs and edible berries, points of scenic wonder or danger. Here the trees are scenes with characters involved in action and dialog, arranged to provoke interest about what will come next. I'm responsible for keeping to a path my readers can follow, not losing them in swamps of pointless monolog or entangling them in briars of overly tangled prose. I must choose a path for the interesting points along its route, without calling attention to the path itself by leaving roots or pitfalls to trip up my travelers.

At this point I might discussing various kinds of paths, whether they be foot-tracks or highways, and whether the routes might lie through jungles, forests, gardens or cities, but all that is up to an individual writer and the variety of choices makes for a more interesting world of books.


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Instead of painting nature, we also need to learn to cook; then drizzle the details (ingredients) and drop them into the whole as needed/neaded/folded or mixed.

Anonymous said...

Don't know about easier, but sure like it more than having to struggle over 50K vs 95K words. Only did one novella and was nice coming to the last page in half the time.

BTW - read an article by the guy who created Smackwords and he noted that the novels with larger word counts sold more copies.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

There is an audience for longer books. More bang for the buck.