The Worst Answer on How To Write Well
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
The most frustrating thing I’ve ever heard about how to write a good novel was, “If you can’t write a good short story you can’t write a good novel.” This came from the mouth of a grizzled veteran writer. I hear his gravely voice every time I repeat that very line to new writers. I hear his snort of derision as he told me undergrads don’t want to believe it, just like they don’t want to believe they have to read in order to write well.
That’s true of inexperienced writers as well. So, I made sure and took immediate offense. I had no interest in short stories. I’m a novelist. I read them, I write them. Why the hell would I want to write a short story? Various arguments I’ve heard against this declaration over the years include: It’s an inferior form of storytelling for people who lack the stomach for a whole novel. I hardly ever read those unless I’m forced to. Isn’t a novel basically a long short story when you get down to it?
At one time I could have made most of those arguments myself against reading and writing short stories. Short stories are practice, I thought, something to play around in when you can’t settle on a whole novel’s worth of content. That’s how I thought of them when I first began writing seriously those many years ago and I couldn’t have been more wrong. A novel, when you boil it down, is a series of short stories about the same characters over and over again. Each chapter has to have its own arc, its own denoument of a type. Each chapter has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If your novel doesn’t contain these elements in every chapter, if each chapter doesn’t keep the reader turning the pages, then you’ve failed as a novelist, haven’t you?
Pick a current novelist. Do a Google search of their name and the phrase “short stories”. You’ll see if they don’t have a collection, they’ve still written and published several.
An excellent example of short story structure in chapter is Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Water Knife. It’s a compelling novel and has no story arc. Weird, huh? You end in the same place you began in his novel. Nothing has been resolved in his world. The characters, however, they each have their own complete story arcs both through the novel and in individual chapters. At the end of the novel none of your questions are answered, though. All you know is that everyone is different from when they began and they still have a long way to go.
How does Bacigalupi do this? By writing chapters that pretty closely follow traditional storytelling arcs.
Another writer to look at is Adam Johnson. He is a helluva short story author. He writes a lot of post-apocalyptic stories and they tend to run in loosely linked collections. Emporium is really good, Fortune Smiles is better. I urge you to check him out if you like good post-apocalyptic fiction and want to write good novels. He’s a good one to study for structure and pacing. Both critical elements in a novel and its chapters.
Knowing how to write short stories helps in other areas too. Namely pacing and time advancement. They are two different things. Pacing refers to how fast the text is moving the reader through the story. Time advancement refers to the passage of time within the story. I was struggling with a story (which is really a chapter) in my novel-via-collection, His Ordained Wife. I needed to cover a span of about a year. I was halfway through the timeline and already at eight thousand words which is far too long for a short story that is only halfway completed. I asked a mentor of mine how I should handle this. She suggested I convey the information to the reader by eavesdropping on the ladies after church while they gossip about everything. I managed to convey every bit of information I needed to in under two thousand words. I improved the pacing of the piece by leaps and bounds, but the passage of time stayed the same. I turned what would have been a slog through entirely too much exposition into a tight read that is compelling and has almost no exposition. It’s nearly all scene which is so much more interesting to read.
Could I have done this without being ‘forced’ to write and study short stories in my MFA program? Probably not. You see, that chapter isn’t just dialogue, it’s several story arcs told in one two-hour gossip session. We learn that the preacher’s new wife is hated, these other two women have an ongoing fued; one is maniupulative and bitter, the other is just kind of a bitch, and this matriarch of the town is long suffering them all. The matriarch, we also learn, is kind of a shitty person to anyone not in her inner circle, but pretty great to those who are. A hypocrite, in other words. All of this is conveyed to the reader in addition to the main story of the chapter also present. All in under two thousand words. No way I could have pulled this off without knowing how to construct a compelling short story first.
One final word about another benefit of writing short stories to improve novel writing: character. If you write short stories about your characters, how they react to things, what they do outside the story, you will become more familiar with your characters. The matriarch I mentioned above? In the early drafts of my novel she was a nice lady. Too nice. I would have never figured out she was a total asshole without writing short stories about her first and her being an asshole is key to how the overall story ends the way it does. Discovering that about her gave me the ability to write her as a well-rounded character. Well-rounded characters come with well-rounded story arcs of their own. Like a short story. Put enough of those together and then you have a compelling novel.
Don’t neglect short stories. Don’t avoid reading them, don’t avoid writing them. They will only ever make you a stronger writer.
Take it from someone who learned first hand.