by Bret Anthony Johnston
In the unpublished foreword to The Preserving Machine, Philip K. Dick offers up a succinct idea about the differences between writing short stories and novels: “[A] short story may deal with a murder; a novel deals with the murderer.” More recently, Ann Patchett compared a story to a punch to the solar plexus and a novel to a long illness from which the writer may never recover. Some writers describe the differences in romantic terms (stories are dates and novels are marriages), and others, when pressed on why certain material is more suited to one form than the other, can only shrug and say, “You just know.” The question is a mainstay at author readings and in fiction workshops, and lately, when someone is misguided enough to ask my opinion, I launch into a spiel about dolphins.
In my novel Remember Me Like This, one of the characters volunteers to help rehabilitate a beached dolphin and becomes kind of obsessed with it. To inhabit her consciousness, I read a lot about dolphins. Like, a lot. Like, if you’re on a quiz show and need to phone a friend for help defining terms like skyhopping or echolocation, call me. FYI: Skyhopping is when dolphins extend their heads out of the water like periscopes. Echolocation is how they navigate and communicate while swimming. It’s complex sonar, a range of clicks and whistles and other sounds that dolphins emit to map their surroundings. When the noises hit something, they bounce back to the dolphin freighted with information; the speed with which this happens determines the object’s distance, shape and density. Through echolocation, dolphins can distinguish between the size of a penny and a dime. They can discern if women in the water are pregnant (occasionally, and sometimes awkwardly, before the women know) and if people have metal rods or plates implanted in their bodies. The sonar is astoundingly accurate. It’s also akin to how writers decide what should be a story and what should be a novel.
Writers are, I think, always sending out their own version of sonar. We scan surroundings for details and characters, for images and settings and pieces of dialogue. We listen for conflicts and anecdotes that suggest larger, more nuanced stories. When we encounter something that intimates a whole narrative, we immediately—instinctively, involuntarily—start gauging its significance. We assess its viability, its solidness, its depth and breadth. The initial assessment is often instantaneous, and as quickly, most ideas are dismissed as dead ends for any number of reasons. Maybe the material is cliché; maybe it seems too thin or sprawling or unwieldy; maybe it’s too reminiscent of our previous work or someone else’s; or maybe, and this is often the most common reason for dismissal, the idea proves itself far less stirring after the intoxicating rush of discovery wanes. It’s the same with dolphins. They’re constantly looking for sustenance and company and entertainment, stimuli that will engage their relentlessly inquisitive minds, but most of what their noises ricochet against fails to capture their interests. When they lock in on something promising, though, they race in its direction. They roll onto their sides, swimming in circles around it for closer inspection. They nudge and prod it with their beaks, looking for soft spots. They keep firing their sonar to figure out what’s inside of this thrilling new thing.
Just as writers do. Once we’ve established that an idea is worthwhile, we consider its density and shape. We map the contours of the tension to gather a sense of what its structure might need to be, and we consider the lives of the characters—how much time will the narrative cover, where will it start and finish, what will it skip, where will it linger? That is, we prod to see if the thing should be short or long. This usually occurs with such swiftness and at such subconscious levels that it can seem as though nothing has happened at all, which is why so many writers say they “just know” how long a project should be. The knowing comes from the information embedded in the echo. If the idea seems especially wide or multi-faceted, if it expands rather than contracts with every poke and prod, then it’s likely a novel. If, on the other hand, the idea seems dense and compact, if it’s potent enough to epitomize a character’s life through a singular event, then it’s probably a story.
What’s crucial to understand here is that I’m not saying the material defines the length of the project. And I’m not arguing that the same idea will suggest itself in similar ways to different writers. Quite the opposite. My position is that whether an idea becomes a short story or a novel utterly depends upon the writer’s curiosity about the subject. We’re not gauging the idea itself; we’re gauging the scope of our interest in the idea. Will the subject hold my attention for months or years? Am I more interested in what this character does, or why she does it? Is this thing about an individual or a family? Is it about death (murder) or life (murderer)? The answers will reveal the ideal form of the narrative, and they’ll do it with the precision of a dolphin discerning the difference between a golf ball and a ping-pong ball. It’s all about the weight, the density, the heft.
I’m also not making any value judgments about the forms nor am I suggesting that one is harder to write than the other. I don’t accept the premise that novels are superior to stories any more than I accept that a writer has to master the short form before graduating to the long. (If anything, the opposite is true: drafting a novel may teach writers unique and invaluable lessons about the architecture of stories.) Regardless of subject, a good short story trumps a mediocre novel in the same way that a dime, though smaller, is worth more than a penny. And short stories can be as difficult and time-consuming to write as novels. If you write or read a great novel and a great short story—and I do believe readers send out their own sonar, testing how much time they want to spend with a subject or author—then you know well the impossibility of ranking one over the other. The goal isn’t a narrative that’s long or timely or marketable. The goal is only to write—and read—something great, something lasting, something in which the characters’ souls are rendered with the grace and surprise and timeless power of the ocean. To achieve this, we have to trust our curiosity and its mysterious, infallible echoes. We have to follow the sounds of our imagination through the dark and murky water of doubt. We have to believe the stories will guide us to the surface where we can breathe clear air and feel the sun on our faces. We have to know that when we dive under again, the readers and characters will be there, waiting and holding their breath, listening for us to call their names and swim blindly in their direction.