How long is long enough?

The Art of Mending with Gold

Above Pop, the burning bowl of the cloudless sky, in every direction parched earth and dusty trees, and rocks striped with colour long before there were men.  The old man looked at the empty road, from the empty diner, believing he was alone.

The Hidden Words is an arts project to show short pieces of writing at the Blue House Yard, Station Rd, Haringey.  The opening of my story “The Art of Mending with Gold” is one of the pieces chosen. It is one of my favourites – I love the short story form, which allows free reign on themes and ideas, and imposes its own specific disciplines.

How long should a story be? Specifically, what makes something a short story and what makes it a novel?

A good short story gets into the situation, does its work, and gets out again.  It has more in common with songs and poems (of typical length) than novels do.  And very long stories told in poetry have more in common with novels.  Some short stories work at 1000 words, and some at 5000.

“The Art of Mending with Gold” is 1700 words.  A stranger comes to an isolated diner in the US desert west, with extraordinary consequences. The story has a beginning, a development, an end. It has three characters, and the action is concluded in one day.

The first answer to how long is intuitive. If everything seems to work, why make it longer?

Pop and Fernanda, and the stranger, are real people, and one could write their lives up to the point of the story. But I feel we know enough about them to understand what happens that day and to care.

The story ends how it does because (in my view) we don’t need to see anything more to understand emotionally what has happened, and we have space to imagine the wonder of how things are now and how tey will be.  Any more explanation feels unnecessary, assuming it is even possible.

Of course, everyone’s reaction can be different.

My novel Our Child of the Stars started as a short story, which showed the family preparing for Halloween, and then their peace is disrupted.  The conclusion showed the dilemma of their life together.

The short answer as to why it became a novel was that so much remained to be told. I wanted to show the sadness in Molly and Gene’s marriage, how Cory came, and why they were so convinced that they had to keep him a secret.  The short story showed a crisis unresolved. Was that day or something else going to bring more danger?

Showing that meant starting earlier – either to when Cory came, or as I decided, even earlier to show both joy and disaster in their marriage. Then, after that Halloween, if more danger comes, how do they prepare, what do they do? Where does it end? A novel is an exercise in obsession, thinking beyond what you need to write, understanding your characters in depth.

Once I knew Cory could not fit into one novel, it was soon apparent that it needed to be two. The first one works as a single book but left big questions unanswered. Readers would tolerate one key question gets some answer by the end of the second book. That’s where Our Child of Two Worlds comes from.

Sometimes a story could be longer and you still don’t.  You may love a short story with novel potential, and choose not to grow it into a novel. I have an 11000 word story where someone discovers the truth about their horrible society.  The elite will clearly not give up power without a struggle and there would be love, honour, struggle, sacrifice and perhaps redemption. My protagonist would be a player within that struggle. No shortage of material.  Yet I had said what I wanted to say, what interested me was in the story already.

As ever comments below! Or drop me a line.

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