How can a three-page short story be too long?
Published: March 15, 2011
Q: My writer’s group agreed that my recent short story submission was too long, but it’s only three double-spaced pages. How is that possible?
A: Fiction comes in all sizes, from flash fiction (stories of just a page or two) to novels of hundreds of pages. Length alone, however, doesn’t dictate whether a fiction is too long or too short. A three-page story can drag if there’s not enough forward momentum and a twenty-page story can zip if every element is in place and tension is well negotiated. That being said, each work of fiction does have its own appropriate length. Your job is to find that perfect length. To do this, focus on the craft and make sure that each and every element receives close assessment during revision. If there are scenes or characters that are underdeveloped, your story is too short. If you include, for example, unnecessary exposition or a setting that is too exhaustively detailed, your story is too long.
It will help to zero in on the scope of the conflict. Conflict between characters can be like molasses: shapeless and viscous. Still, you have to isolate a portion of it and give it form. Let me give you an example: A couple’s eighteen-year relationship is fraught with conflict. That’s a whole messy sludge of molasses. Perhaps you want to focus on the end of that relationship. What story do you want to tell? The saga of their divorce, from the tortured affairs to the drawn out court battles, could fill a novel. On the other hand, the moment in the grocery store when the wife witnesses two teenagers making out in the frozen foods aisle and realizes she doesn’t have that kind of heat for her husband might make for an intriguing flash fiction. Each story comes from the same couple with the same history. It’s easy for the conflict to spread if you don’t contain it.
This question of scope can be confused by the fact that our characters are motivated by their past. In fact, there’s often an underlying conflict—the ground situation—that the conflict of the story aggravates. In Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” Stuart and his friends find a woman’s dead body while on a fishing trip. They continue with their trip instead of heading back immediately to call the police. This decision causes Claire, Stuart’s wife, to reconsider the nature of the man she married. This certainly isn’t the first problem in an otherwise rosy marriage. The current conflict aggravates something that’s been there all along: an underlying threat of violence between husband and wife, and Claire’s sense of powerlessness. The ground situation is addressed in the story, but the thrust of the unfolding action focuses on Stuart’s choice and Claire’s reactions to that choice.
Once you determine scope of a story, you’ll be better equipped to make choices about what should stay and what should go, what moments need to be fully developed and which ones can be only referred to briefly. Scope can take some figuring, but it’s well worth it when it helps guide your decisions in revision.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
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