Assembling Pieces

An author looking for ideas that can fill a novel may have a background that includes forays into short fiction. Their most common form, short stories, have the virtue of being a more manageable prospect than a sprawling novel—20 pages as opposed to 200. If you have written short stories, the question then arises: could material you’ve already written be assembled into a novel?

I’ll first take a half-step and point out that a sub-genre already exists that combines related short stories into a larger whole. The idea for this post comes from reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a collection of tales that depict the history of African Americans. While each story jumps to another character, the anguish of slavery and its aftermath govern all of them. This style of assemblage resembles the construction of Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, regarded as the finest novel of the Vietnam War. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson tells the collective history of a small town.

It is probably apparent by now that a powerful unified theme can be the glue that holds disparate pieces together. If you think of a grand topic that interests you—coal mining, for instance—you might rewrite your present stories in a way that aligns them with a theme. You’ll also find, in the process, that the renewed immersion in them sparks off ideas for new related stories.

Another towering element that might be considered is a central character. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout* are outstanding examples of this type of collection. If you have a character or core cast of characters who form the heart of several stories, you may be able to examine them with an eye toward: can I find a logic that would combine them into a satisfying whole? 

You can also take the further step of cracking open their shells and repurposing the material toward a larger aim. A short story often completes a circle it sets for itself, but within that logic are incidents that would work in a longer format. Aunt Moira would still be upset by the vandalism of the swing set, for instance. If you lift out the governing mood, plus the lead-in and lead-out bridges, the event is ready for use. 

Exercise: Anyone who has written a novella has an easier road to expansion, but usually that can’t be done merely by embroidering present material. You need a wholly new character or subplot to fill out a new stretch of 50-100 pages. You may find nascent buds for such work in any number of your present players.

“In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter.” —Annie Proulx

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

*Thanks to Michael Knight and his fine list in a Publishers Weekly article for reminding me of these books.

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