As long as we’ve had writing, there have been debates about the relative statuses of long and short stories. For some, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. According to publishers, short stories are typically 10,000 words at most, whereas a long story should be upwards of 50,000. As we students know, different word counts vastly alter what you can do. What are the pros and cons of the long and short story, and is either form intrinsically better?
Certain writers have dabbled in both long and short stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story was a novel, A Study in Scarlet, but it was the short stories written for the Strand magazine that really suited the character. Holmes’ genius deductions shine in the short stories – we see a puzzle be set, and Holmes solves it, and it’s all the more impressive because it conforms to our perception of Holmes. The novels, by contrast, are frequently meandering. A Study in Scarlet spends half the time telling us a minor character’s life history. The Hound of the Baskervilles (though I enjoy it) sidelines Holmes for most of the novel just to prevent him solving everything immediately.
While short stories force you to count every word, there’s a lot of scope in longer stories to just go on
Going on unnecessary tangents is a peril of the long story. While short stories force you to count every word, there’s a lot of scope in longer stories to just go on. Victor Hugo is definitely a writer prone to this. The first-half of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is him showing off his knowledge of Gothic architecture – I’ve seen reviews advising readers to just skip a good chunk of the book. Similarly, there are chapters and sections in Les Misérables that scream “I’ve done the research, so you must suffer this too.” At one point, protagonist Jean Valjean heads into a nunnery and we then get chapters describing literally every single detail of these nuns’ lives. One perk of the short story is avoiding all of this fluff.
Although the short story doesn’t allow over-explanation and description, it does run the risk of missing out essential details because it simply has no room for them. I’m a murder mystery fan, so I’ll give you another crime-centred example. Agatha Christie wrote some great short mysteries, but many of them struggle because they’re necessarily thinly-sketched. The one that immediately leapt to mind is ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb.’ It’s not even 6,000 words long, yet it tries to pack in four deaths, a cast of about six suspects and a whole load of globetrotting and history. This is simply too much. You barely know the characters past their names, because there’s no time to get to know them.
There’s a certain form of literary snobbery that paints the short story as inferior just because it is shorter, but I don’t think that’s fair
Perhaps the issue is not length so much as what you plan to use the word count for. I rather like an analogy employed by Paul McVeigh. He compares the short story to taking a photograph, in which you want to make use of your frame and every detail inside to convey meaning. The long story, he writes, is akin to a film – it can take you on a wider journey, covering lifetimes, societies and cultures. You can convey a particular meaning in either form, but doing so requires an understanding of how best to use that form.
Many of Stephen King’s novels are successful because the length allows an atmosphere to build, and that atmosphere is linked to us fearing for characters we’ve grown to know. On the contrary, a short story like ‘The Horla’ works because it is a brutal snapshot of a man’s declining mental state in the face of an invisible adversary. Neither is less effective because of its length.
Ultimately, I don’t think that the two forms are directly comparable. There’s a certain form of literary snobbery that paints the short story as inferior just because it is shorter, but I don’t think that’s fair. They’re just different, with different styles and objectives. Seek out a good short story much as you would a good long story, but be prepared for a different, more immediate kind of reading experience when you do.