Reading a novel is kind of like having a long-term relationship. You begin with a commitment to carry through to the end, though it may take days or weeks or even months to get there (some are more committed than others). In a novel you grow to know the main characters quite well. You identify with them. You love or hate them. It happens over time.
Writing a novel is like that but on a much greater scale. The author lives with the characters behind the scenes, so to speak. If we could say that readers have a friendship with the characters in a novel, then the author has a blood bond. It begins long before the reader meets the characters and continues long after the reader has bid them goodbye. Long-term relationships are a good thing. But sometimes an author just wants to meet someone new, to find someone else to hang out with and see if a friendship develops. That is where short stories can be just the ticket.
Classically speaking, short stories have a different bone structure than novels. They are supposed to adhere to certain conventions about rising action, falling action, pacing, theme, etc. that do not apply to novels in the strictest sense. For my purposes–to get to know new characters–I don’t necessarily focus on classic short story architecture. I do not mean to minimize the literary significance of proper short story structure. I simply choose to deviate from it slightly for this type of story (so shoot me). As my friend Farthingsworth says, “Before you can think outside the box, you have to be smart enough to know that there is a box.”
I am not suggesting that this approach originated in my head. I’m sure most novelists have written stories to get to know new characters. Some of those characters find their way into future novels. Some are fine where they are.
Elmore Leonard wrote more than 40 novels and as many short stories. Many of his books were adapted for the big screen. One of his short stories focused on a character that had appeared in a much earlier novel. It spawned a successful television series: Justified. I can’t say that Mr. Leonard wrote any of his stories for the purpose of developing potential long-term (character) relationships, but I’d be surprised if not–and it did happen.
I can claim nothing in common with the highly successful Mr. Leonard beyond a nickname, but it was while reading some of his short stories that I decided I should spend more time “hanging out” with new characters. Taking time to write short stories not only helps in finding new characters, short stories provide a place to develop a voice, perhaps to experiment with different voices, styles and settings that may find their way into future novels. The only writing that is wasted is that which never gets written.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because I may derive some utility from writing stories, I place no less value on the end result and put in no less effort than when writing a novel. But approaching the story with the idea of meeting someone new makes the process more inviting and in some cases leads to a lasting relationship.