Monday, 9 April 2012

The Scale of a Story-line

For any writer, it's important to match the length of what one is writing to the strength and scale of the story. Some ideas are essentially suited to a short story, others need a full-length novel to do them justice. I can think of one or two of my short stories that I might conceivably have extended into a novel, but very few. And I'd certainly like to think that none of my novels are really just glorified short stories. On balance, I believe it's much better to "waste" an idea by turning it into "just" a short story rather than risk boring a reader by stretching it out too far. But then, I am a lover of short stories...

I can think of one or two novels at least that seemed a bit over-extended. A Taste of Honey, a rather odd book by Gerald Heard, is one that springs to mind. It's a book with Sherlockian echoes, which I read a long time ago. It does have admirers, but I'm afraid it didn't do much for me. Julian Symons was right to describe it as a curiosity.

The problem of length seems to arise more often, though, with films. I've watched quite a few that seem to outstay their welcome. And that is the case with a fairly recent movie, The Ministers, which stars Harvey Keitel as a veteran cop with a dark secret, and John Leguizamo who plays two brothers, one of them scarred both physically and mentally. A pair of hooded killers are on a mission to kill - but why? There seems to be a religious aspect to the mystery, but frankly, very little is made of this in the end.

There are some good aspects to this film, not least the acting of Leguizamo and, in a minor role, Wanda de Jesus, but even though it is only 90 minutes long, it drags. The problem is that there just isn't enough meat in the story (or, perhaps, the writer failed to make the most of what meat there was.) A classic example of a storyline that simply did not justify the time it took to watch the film.

6 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Interesting topic whether an idea is best suited for a short story or a novel. I think there are definitely ideas that "flirt with the boundaries," where it's hard to choose the best format. Valuable food for thought, for which thanks.

Sextonblake said...

I sometimes think that the novella is the perfect length of story to be adapted into a film. Some of the best Nero Wolfe TV adaptions from a few years back were based on 70-80 page originals. Graham Greene's THE THIRD MAN has always been published with THE FALLEN IDOL because it isn't long enough. One of the best examples is Richard Matheson's DUEL which the author was able to turn into a TV movie with hardly a thing changed.

aguja said...

Such an interesting post and so true. I do not admire a novel that over extends and stretches its bounds. I feel 'this should have ended here'and am consequently disappointed. Also, when too much is crammed into a novel, more than is necessary to set the scene or to give background detail, I feel that it should have been made into a non fiction book.
I choose books often at first by the cover and title before looking in side at random, at different pages, to gauge the writing style and I then have an idea of the appeal of the book for me.
I am always conscious of this as I write, be it for a book or for a poem.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for your comments. It's an interesting subject, isn't it? The point about novellas is spot on, I think, and Duel is a very good example. Great film!

J said...

I very much enjoyed the first two episodes of MOTHER LOVE with Diana Rigg, and looked forward to the final installment. Unfortunately, it became clear that the producers did not have an hour's worth of story left, and it felt very padded.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello, J. I didn't see that one - a pity, as I do like Diana Rigg. And it's a pity that TV scheduling sometimes makes a mess of a perfectly decent story.