How big an idea does a book require?

once upon a time the end

My youngest daughter is studying creative writing now in college, and we had a chance to visit about flash fiction in a two-hour ride to the airport last Sunday afternoon.

I’m not sure exactly what the definition of flash fiction is but, in essence, it is fiction a person can read in a flash, certainly in one sitting, maybe in ten minutes or less.  In order to fit into such a compressed time fame, flash fiction is shackled with certain limitations.  It is locked into describing probably one scene with a story line that is the epitome of “arriving late and leaving early.”

That discussion led us to another one.

How big of an idea does a full length novel require?

A novel is the quintessential form of fiction writing.  It requires an author to flex all his writing muscles.  Not only must the writer populate the pages with an interesting cast, he must also concoct a multifaceted story with twists and turns galore, set in a location that fits.

That’s a long way from a fifteen hundred word story.

One is a snapshot, the other a motion picture.

And what about that story line?

My daughter is studying Joseph Campbell’s seminal work on mythological archetypes, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

That’s a pretty good touch stone for an author who hopes to find the distilled wisdom of the ages presented as stories that have stood the test of time.

It is one thing to say a book is about a person’s struggle against the physical world, or against society, or against himself.  It is an entirely different matter to create a modern day parable or fable which stacks up well against the tales that generations of soothsayers have handed down to us.

“I just want to write a love story,” you say.


flash fiction

Is it about the universal human need to be loved?

It should be.

It doesn’t have to be high-falutin’ either.

I believe it was Tolstoy who said that every novel should be about either a day or a century.

I take that to mean that a story about what happens to an office worker one day at work can contain all the universal human themes necessary to make it resonate with a vast audience.

And herein lies the ironic point where flash fiction and novels intersect.

Either of them can focus on one event, even a few minutes in a person’s life.

Flash fiction may tell us what a character wore that day.  A novel allows us to understand why she wore it.




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  • Caleb Pirtle

    How big of an idea should a novel have? One and maybe two. Love, Hate, Greed. Revenge, Ambition. Power. Jealousy. Take your pick. I believe that all great novels are built around one or a combination of them.

  • There are an infinite number of ways to write about any universal theme. They are what makes a book matter to a reader.

  • Obsession. Betrayal. Love.

  • Gae-Lynn Woods

    Great post, Stephen. Doesn’t have to be high-falutin’? Amen.

  • Darlene Jones

    Great post. Don’t all stories, short or long, revolve around the human heart?

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