Monday, April 9, 2018

Nature of the Beast: The Long and the Short

Sword and Sorcery started out as a form written for the short story, and something of that form and approach has remained with it to this day. After working in S&S for years I am given to wonder – is that something intrinsic to the genre? Plenty of long-form S&S works have been written since Howard invented it. My question now is: are longer Sword & Sorcery works hamstrung out of the gate? Do the ways the genre has to be adapted to make for a novel change it for the worse?

After all, short stories and novels are not just fictions with different lengths, they are fundamentally different modes of storytelling, with different requirements and demands, and in the end, different effects. Many genres work equally well, if in different ways, as different kinds of stories, but is there something embedded in the way S&S is constructed that makes it work better as a short form?

A short story, after all, is not a miniature novel, but rather a kind of snapshot. A good short story encapsulates a single event, a moment in a character’s life that may be a day, an hour, or just a few minutes. By focusing so closely, a short story can make even a brief episode into something dramatic and exciting. The emotional line of a short story is also simpler, usually focusing on a single arc of feeling from one state and then to a rising emotional moment at the climax, when the character’s understanding of their world and relationship to it are transformed. The character makes a choice that changes them, and that is really the entire point of the story.

This cuts away a lot of what you need for a good novel. A novel has many characters, many scenes, and usually covers the passage of a longer period of time. The story will have one climax, a novel may have many. As a result of the larger scope, a novel needs more worldbuilding, lots more detail and inclusion of explanations for things that a short story would simply elide past. In a short story you need focus, so you don’t tend to get bogged down too much in the details of the world. You evoke, rather than delineate.

I think this really tends to add something to the world of an S&S story, because fantasy is often better when it is sketched rather than detailed. You can mention far-off lands, name-drop cities and people and gods, use arcane terms for magical bullshit and weird rituals, and you don’t have to stop and explain all of it. For a story you just need what’s going to be in the story, and the whole thing moves too fast for people to stop in the middle and start puzzling over how politics works in your world and why there are no mines here or farmlands there.

Short stories, in this way, operate much more like movies than like novels. Movies also tend to have tighter stories with simpler emotional payloads than the more richly-woven fabric of a novel. Movies also count on you being caught up in the energy so you don’t stop to bother with plot holes and nitpicky details until after it is over.

I actually think this kind of looseness and focus on emotion works better for Sword & Sorcery. It’s a pulp genre, with a focus on action, drama, and mystery. The world of an S&S story – even a shared world used by multiple stories – is more suited to being sketched rather than completely filled in. The bigger world of a novel requires more fixed detail, and that means a more grounded world with more established rules, and that is not how S&S works best.

I’m not saying a Sword & Sorcery novel could not be done well, but I think the best works in the genre have been done in the short form. If there is a novel that does it as well as it has been done in short stories, then I would very much like to see it.

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