Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

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Brad R. Torgersen
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Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

Postby Brad R. Torgersen » Fri Sep 26, 2008 6:03 am

Food for thought....

Dave Wolverton wrote:Some writers seem hard-wired for writing at certain lengths. If you grew up reading long fantasy novels or big historical novels, the chances are excellent that you'll feel compelled to write long novels. You may even despair at writing anything shorter than a hundred thousand words. On the other side of the coin, if you grew up watching 1/2-hour television shows and reading short stories in magazines, you might find it difficult to write well at a length of over 20,000 words.

I know lots of professional authors who have this problem. My friend Brandon Sanderson is by nature a long writer, while I tend to think that one writer I admire, Lucius Shepard, tends to excel in shorter forms.

I, on the other hand, write stories in a wide range of lengths. I've written picture books that have only a page of text, and novel series that have been over two million words. Generally speaking, I can pace myself pretty well. If I WANT to hit a page mark--say a middle-grade book that is to be 225 pages, I can usually hit within five percent of my projected page count.

So how do you do it? Well, here are some tips.

First, if you want to write short, restrict the number of character viewpoints that you write from. Last week on the plane I read an anthology of some 20 short stories. Not one of the stories tried to tell a tale from more than one character's point of view. So if you want to write a short story, avoid the temptation to tell it through multiple characters.

The reason for this is quite simple. If you begin telling the story from two points of view, then think about it: you soon discover that you have to tell two stories--not just one. Let's say that one viewpoint character is Leon, and another is Brenda. Though both of them might be embroiled in the same conflict, the truth is that each will handle it differently; each will see it differently. For example, let's say that they're married and their son is being picked on by bullies at school. Brenda might want to solve the problem by calling the boys' mothers, while Leon wants to ambush the little cretins and take a baseball bat to them. The story gains strength as the conflict becomes more than just being about saving the son, but determining a sane course of action in doing so.

So if you think, yeah, I want to add this secondary level of conflict, you will most likely find that you are alternating scenes. So we'll get to see see Leon from Brenda's POV--her worries that he's insane, that he'll go too far and get arrested, and so on. Of course we'll see from Leon's viewpoint that his wife's phone calling really doesn't do any good. The mothers in the neighborhood are thugs, and their own mothers are terrified of them. The police won't do anything--not until their son is killed, so the only rational choice is to take a baseball bat to the evil teens. Of course each character will require his or her own personal climax and denouement.

So just by adding a second character, you will likely double the size of your story. If you were hoping to get it done in 4,000 words, it will now take 8,000 words.

If you add a third character into the mix--let's call him Victor--, you'll find that your tale becomes far more complex. You now have to handle Victor's relationship with Leon and Victor's relationship with Brenda. Also, Brenda now has to handle relationships with Victor and Leon, and Leon now has to handle relationships with Brenda and Victor.

In other words, when you add a third character you go from having to deal with 2 relationship lines to 6 relationship lines. And if you add a third character, the number doubles! (For a longer discussion of this, see Robert McKee's book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The truth is that when writing a very short story, it is very difficult to write from more than one point of view (POV). You can't get into the heads of more characters.

If you're writing a novel that is supposed to be a hundred thousand words, it is difficult to handle more than three major characters' POV. Three is an ideal number for middle-range works.

In writing a big honking fantasy series, I really think that it's unwise to try to write more than five character POVs. The reason is that if you are writing from five POVs and each character has a chapter that is 20 pages long, you'll find that your reader has to go through 100 pages of text before returning to his or her favorite character. This means that the reader may become frustrated with your story and lose interest.

Just as importantly, if you've got four or five viewpoint characters, it becomes difficult for the reader to keep track of what is going on with each of the characters.

So, in order to keep a tale short, tell it from only one character's POV.

Similarly, in writing short fiction you'll need to restrict the number of settings that you have. In your story, you may have several scenes (more on that later). If you are trying to transport your reader to a new world--introducing sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations--then you may spend a good deal of time describing that world--let's say three or four pages.

Well, if you now try to transport the reader to seven different worlds in the course of your story, you might be tempted to have 20 pages of description for the tale--and that's before you get into dialog and narrative! So you'll need to restrict the number of locations you visit. Keep it down to two or three locations total, if you can. If you do have to visit more locations, keep the descriptions perfunctory, a sentence or two.

Last of all, restrict the number of conflicts that you deal with. If I'm writing a huge fantasy novel, I might juggle a dozen different conflicts with each character. But for a short story, two or three conflicts is plenty.

So if you want to write a story and keep it short 1) write from the view of only one protagonist, 2) set the tale in in only a couple of locations 3) and keep the focus on two or three large problems.

Tomorrow I'll go over some other ways to handle a story in order to keep it short.
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Postby LaurieG » Fri Sep 26, 2008 7:23 am

Yes, I found this useful. I'm looking forward to the next one.
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Re: Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

Postby Brad R. Torgersen » Wed Feb 02, 2011 8:53 am

Just sifting back through some stuff, and relocated this to the Info Alley.
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Re: Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

Postby storysinger » Wed Aug 07, 2013 4:20 am

This information is very helpful. I have been guilty of writing too many characters into my stories and will try a different technique in my next one.
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Re: Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

Postby george nik. » Tue Feb 18, 2014 6:14 am

This is very interesting and it really seems quite hard and superfluous to write a short story with more than one POV.

Dave Wolverton wrote:
In writing a big honking fantasy series, I really think that it's unwise to try to write more than five character POVs. The reason is that if you are writing from five POVs and each character has a chapter that is 20 pages long, you'll find that your reader has to go through 100 pages of text before returning to his or her favorite character. This means that the reader may become frustrated with your story and lose interest.


On a big honking fantasy series level, though... I don''t know. I think the Wheel of Time must have more like fifty character POVs and that's what makes it such a great story.
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Re: Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

Postby Brad R. Torgersen » Tue May 06, 2014 4:49 pm

Quick follow up: some of you might be interested in this.

http://www.kutv.com/news/top-stories/st ... 1061.shtml

TV interview with Dave, from KUTV in Utah. Tonight at 10 PM Mountain. I am not sure yet if they will have the full expose available for web viewers? Hopefully, yes.
Coming up: "Life Flight," in Analog magazine
Coming up: "The Chaplain's War," from Baen Books
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Re: Dave Wolverton talks Short Story

Postby Martin L. Shoemaker » Tue May 06, 2014 4:57 pm

Brad R. Torgersen wrote:Quick follow up: some of you might be interested in this.

http://www.kutv.com/news/top-stories/st ... 1061.shtml

TV interview with Dave, from KUTV in Utah. Tonight at 10 PM Mountain. I am not sure yet if they will have the full expose available for web viewers? Hopefully, yes.


Who said that? It's some impostor! I know it can't be Brad, he's in self-imposed exile right now. wotf013
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