A New Chance for the Short Form

In the second half of the 20th-century — especially in the United States — the long form of story telling has ruled.

If you were a writer of any ambition, you were a novelist. If you were a filmmaker, you made features. On Television, sitcoms were only thirty minutes, but a “drama” was a full hour.

Many writers who were essayists by temperament (Don DeLillo, for example), often seemed to writing novels because that’s what you did, shoehorning their ideas into the shape of a long form line of action with many characters carrying the water for the ideas at hand. (Raymond Carver notably bucked the trend against all advice that the novel was “real” writer’s work, continuing to ply his trade with the short story.)

Especially with the visual work of Film and Television, the short form really had no means of distribution or a chance to be seen. (Other than repeats of Warner Bros. cartoons on syndicated kids shows!)

But the Internet is about short and punchy — for now, at least. And I’m thrilled by that. I’m an idea guy — but often the thought of having to find the right way to “stretch” a notion into feature length gives me the trembles. Sometimes I just want to dump an idea out, have the audience enjoy it, and move on.

The form for that hasn’t really been viable for a while. But the Internet wants short. People arrive for a quick break. I think we can move beyond “cat playing piano.” But I think it’s important to realize that for a while short pieces can rule — and rule well. It means re-thinking and re-examining what makes “good” story and good structure.

Currently a lot of the more professional work on the Internet is just a long form story divided into smaller pieces. But suspect this is more out of habit of training and experience than purposeful choice.

As I try to sort out what will work best for the Internet, I’m moving more and more to self-contained, short form work. And in the last couple of weeks I started thinking about the writing off the astounding Jorge Luis Borges.

His short works are packed with amazing ideas… But he never stretches them out to full length form. He will write a review of a book that never existed, or discuss an encyclopedia entry of a nation he invented, tell quickly the life story of a man that reveals one fierce spark of an idea or revelation.

In each of these, he takes a concept that might be stretched out into an overblown piece of writing or film-making, padded with plot and subplot, and instead gets it down and out the door.

He wrote:

“It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”

“…related orally in five minutes…”

That, right there, my friends, is Internet gold. Because what is so much of YouTube, whether it is lonelygirl15 or Woody Allen now finding an afterlife in small clips.

When you bring in the strange or the weird, as Borges does in his short pieces, you also create something that catches the viewer’s eye. And such a piece would give viewers as a group something to mull over, discuss and argue about (always good for the Internet.)

Since I believe that for a while it will be actors’ faces and words that will carry the day on the Internet (the screens are I think to small for visual detail to carry too much weight), I’m delighted by the fact Borges points they way by speaking about “orally” telling the tale in five minutes.

This, anyway, is the direction I’m going as I prepare material for Disney and other companies that are looking for Internet specific content. I’m looking at the works of Borges, Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and other masters of the short form for inspiration.

I think they have a lot to teach us right now.

.

Advertisements


%d bloggers like this: