by Patricia L. Morin
Although short stories, novels, and plays all integrate character, setting, plot, and conflict, I’ve experienced that the skills needed to succeed in these three forms of literature are uniquely different.
Many short-story writers cannot stretch themselves, inevitably losing their way, as they attempt to complete a novel. Many novelists, conversely, are unable to be succinct enough to write a short story. Even fewer writers are capable of employing dialogue as the primary technique in the unfolding of a play.
In my experience, the distinguishing characteristic among these three types of literature boils down to one word: focus.
The focus of a short story is on an event, a plot point that affects the characters, their interactions, and their environment. Descriptions of setting, time, personal histories, and character motivations are necessarily brief, because the reader can evaluate what is transpiring in the characters’ minds.
For example, my short story, “Homeless,” concerns a homeless man sitting on a bench at a busy intersection and a woman stopped at the traffic light. She has just moved into the city and also feels homeless. What matters most in this story are the woman’s thoughts and feelings; “Homeless” unfolds mostly in her head, as she attempts to finds sixty seconds worth of solace while sitting at the red light. However, the story focuses on the one event.
I started my writing career, like so many other writers, with short stories. My nature is to be direct and short stories seemed a natural avenue for me to follow into the written word.
The focus of a novel, of course, is broader, deeper, higher. All aspects of the protagonist are explored—his or her past, present, friends, ideals, problems. The plot can take many twists and turns while the antagonist, along with the minor characters, impedes or thwart the protagonist’s journey to a resolution. The protagonist travels a rocky road and the reader experiences all the bumps along the way. As Stewart Spencer states in The Playwright’s Guidebook: “We lift the veil off level after level after level.”
The novelist, naturally, creates the long and rocky road, always faced with the threat of dead ends. For me, sustaining the focus on a novel is an arduous task, made ever more demanding by the constant concern of keeping the reader engaged. Currently, I’m forging my way through Seniors, Inc., centered around a temporary employment agency for seniors. It’s a world of many personalities, their front and back stories, and their goals. My characters and I have been traveling together for quite a while and we have a long way to go.
Other novelists, however, see the craft in a broader focus. They delight in the details and drawing in the reader to accompany their characters down a life’s journey. It’s a more natural way for them to write.
Finally, a play is focused on character. As my teacher and workshop coordinator Will Dunne (The Dramatist Writer’s Companion Tool) instructs, “The character is the scene. The character is the story.” And the character is developed through dialogue. The power of the spoken word drew me to writing plays. In my career as a psychotherapist, the spoken word had been my livelihood. Being a shrink, I was at home with this kind of art form.
The setting, the time period, and the problem in a play can be depicted as the curtain opens. In The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, the audience sees old Salvation Army furniture in a small apartment. The kitchen has ripped dishtowels. A shabbily dressed African-American man is sitting at the messy kitchen table. An old upright piano with beautifully carved masks in the legs stands in the scant parlor. All that information is disclosed with one glance at the stage. From there, the dialogue reveals the relationships this man has with his family, friends, students, and himself, as well as the central conflict. On stage, the direct acting out of the emotion accompanies the dialogue.
When the idea of my play The Gatekeeper, in which people can bury unwanted emotions, came into my mind, I saw only the gatekeeper. Though proud of his cemetery of buried emotions, he was anxious to evolve to a higher plane. My main focus was on only him. It broadened a bit when a woman who blames him for burying the wrong emotion wants it back. I added a cape to his black outfit, an all-black costume for her, and a few gravestones with feelings etched on them, but the main focus of the play was on the spoken interaction between the two characters.
Although all stories involve characters, events, plot, and conflict, what is your primary focus?