How to choose writing form?
March 8, 2012 7:10 AM   Subscribe

To writers: how do you consider questions of which form in which to express your ideas - short story, essay, novel, poem, even unconventional forms like very short fiction or experimental plotless fiction or aphorism collection or blog posts (to the extent they're their own thing)? Are there any good articles or books that wrestle with this dilemma?
posted by shivohum to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As an amateur writer who has on rare occasion been paid for his writing, (and thus probably not who you're hoping to hear from) I try to choose the absolute shortest form in which I can adequately express an idea.

This means that I write a lot of aphorisms and fragments, which is one of the reasons I'm not often paid for my writing.
posted by gauche at 7:33 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book is full of writing exercises, many of which are explicitly about finding the right form for an idea. Heffron encourages writers to try out different mediums instead of immediately settling for the form the writer is most familiar with. Heffron's ideal writer is someone who might not be a master of every form from critical essay to movie scripts but who nevertheless has at least a general competence in most of them. It's a good book to page through if you're feeling stuck or can't find the right angle for your piece.
posted by Orchestra at 8:00 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm dealing with this right now.

I had an idea for a screenplay. I got thirty pages into the screenplay and realized, "Nobody is ever going to make this movie." No matter how good the screenplay gets, no matter if I become the next Aaron Sorkin and pull this out of the attic after I win an Oscar and can do anything I want. Nobody is ever going to want to make this movie.

A friend suggested to me that it would make a good novel. I'm pretty seriously toying with the idea of writing it as a novel, even though I've never been terribly interested in writing novels in the past. So a lot of it is finding a format that tells a story in the way this story needs to be told, or a format that is enjoyed by the kinds of people who would enjoy your story. (The latter is how my screenplay drifted into the land of the novel.)

In a similar but more practical sense, I also deal a lot with whether a certain idea belongs on my blog or should be fleshed out for publication somewhere else. Which is I think a slightly different question than that of screenplay vs. novel, but definitely related. That has a lot more to do with ambition and career and Marketing Your Personal Brand and the like.

And I just want to thank Orchestra for throwing The Writer's Idea Book out there! I'd seen it in stores and thought it was just a book of freewriting exercises or the like. Definitely going to check that out now.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

With a new idea, I usually spend a bunch of time writing supplemental stuff first - outlines, timelines, scenes, character sketches, etc. That process is what helps me figure out the scope of the piece. Sometimes what happens is I figure out the idea isn't enough to carry a whole piece - I have some good characters but no plot, or a well-fleshed out setting but no characters, or structure but nothing to hang it on. But at least then I have a bunch of concrete stuff to come back to when the missing part finally hatches in my head.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:39 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmm... poetry is usually such a distinct form that an idea either comes to me as a poem or it doesn't. There is no crossover (for me) between poetry and anything else other than maybe a painting...

For fiction I prefer writing novels so when I brainstorm an idea and it doesn't seem meaty enough for a novel I usually ditch it. So the scope of your idea determines whether it is a short story/novella/novel.

Blog entries and essays... are pretty much the same aren't they. Just a blog entry is a VERY short essay. So I guess the scope of your idea determines which it is.

Once the format is settled (let's say a novella or a poem) than the idea guides the specific form (experimental vs formal etc...)

Usually when I sit down to write I have a specific form in mind -- I am going to brainstorm my next novel, for example. Occasionally while I am brainstorming I get an idea for a different project... but usually I know what I want to write so my brainstorming is pretty focused. With poetry/art my brainstorming gets a little more free-form and I just start putting things down until I figure out where it is taking me.

posted by LittleMy at 11:05 AM on March 8, 2012

Gerard Genette is your go to theorist on matters of form/content (or content/form). Explore explore. Another classic, incredibly readable, expert you might enjoy: Mikhail Bakhtin
posted by 0bvious at 3:46 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Restless_Nomad's advice for fiction is very good. Take time also to figure how how many characters you're dealing with, what plotlines you've got, what subplots and subtexts you've got, and you should start to get a feel for how long the piece is going to be. This is how I think about it, roughly speaking:

One idea with one key twist is flash fiction, possibly short story. One key character, one plot line will probably give you a short story or a novelette. A pair or small groups of characters, one plot line, possibly one simple subplot might give you a novella. Several groups of characters, multiple plots and subplots and you've got a novel. More than that and you're in epic territory.

You can obviously play with this idea, and there's no hard or fast rules, but if you think about it, one character and one plot line makes for a very, very boring novel, but you can't cram lots of complexity into a short story.

For non-fiction pieces you can take a similar approach. How complex is the idea you're trying to communicate? How much do you need to quote others? And so on.

Personally, I'm very fond of the novella length. It's relatively quick to write, but long enough to get your teeth into. Both my last work, Argleton, and current project, Queen of the May, are novella-length. It's just a very satisfying length to me!

Of course, all that said, fiction has a tendency to find its natural length only when you've finished it!
posted by Suw at 10:14 AM on March 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the excellent answers!
posted by shivohum at 9:52 AM on March 16, 2012

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