Thoughts on the Novel and the Short Story

by David Ebenbach

Let’s face it: a lot of novels are really boring.

Not all of them, obviously—some of my best friends are novels—but too many of them are. Boring. Boring. Booooooring. It’s like, you’re on page 247, and thinking, Are we seriously still doing this? And there’s a lot more to come.

Sometimes I don’t know why people even try to write novels. There are so many places that those things can (and really often do) go wrong.

I’m going to make a dubious analogy here: it’s like a family trip. And some family trips are great—memories last a lifetime!—but some of them make you want to jump from the family car just as it hits 65 mph on the highway.

Think of all the stages in which a family trip can go wrong. First, there’s the conceptual stage. Maybe one day the kid sees a letter on the table and says to the father, “Hey—that’s a kind of nice-looking stamp,” and suddenly Dad gets this maniacal look on his face and says, “You like that stamp? Well, maybe we should drive seven hundred miles to go to Stamp Kingdom, the state’s largest stamp-themed museum! Now with extra stamps!” And before you know it, everyone’s packed into the station wagon and the kid is thinking, What the…

In other words, not all ideas deserve several hundred pages of anybody’s undivided attention.

(Also, in this analogy, the different family members are different parts of the mind. The kid is your core self or something. Don’t look too closely at the analogy, or it might fall apart.)

Anyway, in some cases the concept is good—your destination is Hardcore Soulful Aesthetically Breathtaking Supernova Amusement Park Explosionland of Deep Meaning and Staggering Personal Growth—but the novel/trip begins unpromisingly. All the car doors are shut, seatbelts on, the wheels starting to roll, and Mom (or Dad #2, maybe) says, “Hey—who wants to play the license plate game?” Dad (#1) offers ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall as an alternative. And with a slow dawning horror you find yourself wondering what you can do to get this car turned around. Dad’s always threating to turn-this-car-around. But how can I get him to do it when I actually need it?

In other words, a lot of times, a novel starts with some long, windy thing—oh, the trees, the trees, the trees!—that makes the reader wonder why one would embark on such a journey in the first place. Even if you’re heading for Soulful Explosionland, it’s like, You know what? I’m just going to hold off and wait until they develop the technology so that I can teleport straight there.

(Luckily, with a book you really can just put it down and walk away.)

Or maybe the ending is a bust. You finally get to Soulful Explosionland, and it turns out that Soulful Explosionland is in fact a catchy name for the state’s largest stamp-themed museum. You’ve driven seven hundred miles, fought continuously with your family about things that are never going to change, wondered if you’d ever see anything outside the car ever again, and then you end up at stampville, now with extra stamps.

I mean, the brass tacks: if you’re going to drag someone along for hundreds of pages, you’ve got to deliver something extraordinary at the end.

But I think most failed novels blow it in the long middle. The novelist is thinking, Hey—I’ve got all kinds of pages to work with here. Why not slow down and really meditate on stuff, like the difference between crows and ravens—those birds are crazy!—or talk about exactly how this character’s eyebrows move? They move so interestingly, especially in all these different circumstances that I can enumerate! This is the equivalent of one of the parents insisting on the scenic route, which is mostly a sequence of covered bridges, accompanied by a parental monologue like, “Did you know the first covered bridge in America was made out of wood? American wood? Let’s take a closer look.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the middle of a novel feeling like the kid in the backseat of the station wagon, screaming (in my head), COME ON! COME ON COME ON COME ON! OH MY GOD ARE WE EVER GOING TO GET THERE COME ON PLEASE AT LEAST CRASH INTO SOMETHING SO THAT IT’LL BE EVEN SLIGHTLY INTERESTING OH MY GOD!


(Those how-to-write books even encourage this. I’ve seen it! They say things like, “Novels have a lot of room, so people don’t mind if there’s a little slack in there.” Seriously!)

So what’s the alternative? The alternative, of course, is the motorcycle joyride.

That’s right—I’m talking about the short story.

Now, there are some boring short stories—you know who you are—but even the boring ones only last a short time. And there’s actually much less opportunity to go wrong, because the short story is this really sexy person on a motorcycle saying, “Hey—let’s you and me go tear around for a half-hour at insane speeds and then I’ll drop you off back here all dizzy and shaken!”

First of all, although a good concept still matters, it doesn’t actually matter as much in short fiction; even if your destination is the stamp museum, you’re like, “Yes. Yes—let’s tear this road to the stamp museum UP!” (I.e., let’s enjoy these sharp scenes and characters and voice that are right in our faces right now!) And then even if you start off a little slow—you don’t want to wake the parents—you can pick up speed really soon after that. (By speed I don’t necessarily mean action, of course—I just mean getting to the heart of what the story’s about, fast.) And you can enjoy the ride because it’s precious and brief. There’s no scenic route, no covered bridges. This driver is all, “We got to get there right now, baby.” (Those same how-to-write books say that, with short stories, you have to make every word count.)

And even if—worst case—you get to the end of the ride and it’s not that great after all, it was only a half-hour. Even if the whole thing was a disaster, it was only a half-hour. And there’s another sexy motorcyclist waiting for you in front of your house, ready to peel out for a different ride. And a lot of times the first ride was a good one anyway. You’re still working on getting your breath back when the next motorcycle pulls up next to you. Plus, believe me—someday you’ll be telling your grandkids about the very best of those rides.

Now, like I say, some family vacations stay with you a long, long time. Who can forget that wild cross-country trip with Aunt Anna Karenina, who couldn’t stay out of trouble? Or roadtripping with Rahel and Esthappen and their Mom, who was clearly keeping a lot of secrets? Or all the crazy back and forth between the various Compsons as you tooled around Mississippi? (You kept wanting to leave Jason on the side of the road.) Or the harrowing stories of Sethe that kept you trembling as you worked your way up into Ohio? I could go on. Great new novels do come out every year; maybe you’re writing one right now. If you get the right family in the car, and the right destination, and the right route, you could have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So, bottom line, here’s some high-quality writing advice for you: if you’re going to write a novel, make sure to do a seriously good job. Because I’m sorry: way too many of those trips are just one dead rest stop after another, and a whole lot of Are we there yet?

Meanwhile: Me? Give me the motorcycle. Get me on the bike and just take off. Take off into drama, into quiet intensity, the perfectly rendered moment, the crucial gasp of the thing.

Come on already. Let’s go.

This article originally appeared in Medium.