According to the short story writer Jorge Luis Borges, in his foreword to the collection entitled, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths:’
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.
Like Borges, I also prefer stories to be shorter, as a general rule. I am not quite so stringent as he seems to be, at least if he genuinely believed what he said in the quotation above, but generally I do also prefer a story be kept as short as possible.
The operative word here is possible since, to take nothing away from the brilliance of Borges as a writer, the above quotation is, well, bullshit.
See, literally every story ever told can be shortened evermore – Borges’s reference to a story related orally in five minutes can be shaved down to four minutes, three, even a single word. But would it be better?
Writing a story is about taking not just the very core, the very simplest way of putting something. It is by its very nature an elaboration – to be made elaborate and, yes, longer than it needs to be so that it can be at all evocative from either an emotional or philosophical manner.
Of course, all this said, some authors can and do take things too far, relating a story that takes much longer than it has any great need to be. It is possible to take far too long waffling about miniscule details that don’t mean anything to either the characters or, indeed, anyone else. But I don’t think the goal here is to tell the story in as short a timeframe as possible. Because just as a story can be too long, it can also be too short. And in some way, I think those unnecessary details are in fact very necessary. It’s often in the little details, rather than the broad strokes, that make our favourite stories so memorable, so powerful, and so compelling.
Now, as I said, I do generally prefer a shorter story. And for the longest time I actually thought I hated long stories, for much the same reasons that Borges seems to be implying in the above quotation. There was one main story that began the process of changing my mind – and it was a process, make no mistake. Even now I read a lot more shorter books than longer ones. But that’s why this issue means so much more to me.
I don’t like the idea that any so-called ‘rule of writing’ is true all of the time. There are always valid reasons not to do something in a story, even if it seems that to everyone else, it is a must. In fact, I’d argue this is the only way we can produce genuinely meaningful stories – doing the unexpected means, on some level, doing what everyone thinks is impossible with a story.
With all of this said, what is this long book that first started to change my mind? Well, it’s not quite five hundred pages, admittedly. It’s just a few pages under that Borges-anathema number. In fact, some of you will probably not consider it all that long of a story at all. But it was the longest book I’d ever read at the time, and as I said, it started the ball rolling in my interest in longer works.
The author, of course, is Stephen King. He is infamous not only for telling some of the best works of horror fiction, but also some of the lengthiest. And in fact, this is one of the ways he is often criticised by both his detractors and some of his fans. I used to be in that camp.
But today, before I ever start diving into the sub-medium of short stories, I want to discuss long stories, and the benefit that is to be found therein. And I am starting with one book in particular – ‘The Shining.’
This book is most famous for its haunted setting – the Overlook Hotel. To talk about the benefits that any story might reap from its greater length though, it’s important to consider where it starts. ‘The Shining,’ for its part, begins with a job interview. More than that, the job interview that will take the Torrance family to that most infamous hotel. And more than that, it does so in a way that introduces us to Jack’s character. The little things, small details that make it clear to us the readers in a more subtle way, the darkness and edge lurking below the surface of this guy’s mind. And other aspects that are in fact not so below the surface. The very first thought of Jack’s we are introduced to is a judgment on another character, another character whose thoughts we are not introduced to.
It's worth considering, actually, how long it takes for what you consider to be major stepping stones of the narrative to actually happen.
The first chapter is Jack’s job interview. Chapter Three is when Jack sees the hotel for the first time. It’s not until Chapter Nine the family arrives. And it’s not until the end of Chapter Thirteen they’re alone in the hotel. You’re a hundred pages into the book by this time and, in the conventional sense, the ‘bad stuff’ you come to the horror genre for is only about to start happening.
Any other writer would have made these leaps a chapter at a time, like a one two punch – job interview, boom, hotel, boom, alone, boom, the change, boom, slasher time.
Stephen King understands the core of the ghost story though – it’s not just about cold shocks to the reader’s system (although it can certainly involve that too) – it’s much more about that creeping dread. The idea that things are not as they seem, but you only realise that in tiny little increments, so that when the ‘oh god no’ finally hits, you realise just how long it’s been building up. It is, for a more cliché way of putting it, the toad boiling in a pan. Though where that cliché could possibly have come from I don’t know. What are y’all doing to poor garden amphibians?
Anyway, in all this time, there’s not these gaps of nothing going on – in actual fact, there are very important, slower, creepier (in a literal sense, not an emotional one) details that slowly, almost unbearably but in only the best sense of the word, get introduced to us, to build up the sense of atmosphere in this setting, and not only that, but in the minds of the main characters as well. Because ultimately, it is in the minds of a story’s protagonists that atmosphere really lurks.
As I said, we’re a hundred pages in before things start going wrong, and it’s nearly two hundred and sixty pages before the book really ramps up into anything resembling the violence you might have expected.
But look, even with a hundred pages of set up, the book could have then gone into another two hundred pages of pure violent horror, and the pacing would still have been about right. So why a five hundred page book instead?
Well, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are a number of different types of horror. A short, two hundred page horror novel might be really damn good at pure, intensified terror, jolting adrenaline into your veins and keeping you on edge right through every page of the book. But King wasn’t really interested in terror when writing this book. He was interested in its opposite – dread.
Dread is a different kind of fear to terror, and it’s important for a book to be written in a different way in order to manifest it.
Whereas terror is fast and intense, dread takes a lot longer, it’s a slow acting toxin that takes its time to really take root in our body, but then also takes a lot longer to be sucked out of it once the fear-stimulus stops.
And it’s this kind of fear that Stephen King is building up throughout ‘The Shining.’
A slow, creeping dread. This is achieved by gently, carefully spreading breadcrumbs across the pages, keeping them close enough, but still quite far apart. It can’t be done by just whacking you with a baguette.
But, okay, there’s this other kind of fear, and it requires a longer page count to really make it effective. That makes sense, but it can’t just be that, right? After all, it’s not just the ghost story that uses long page counts, and even other ghost stories can be short.
That’s true – but ‘The Shining’ isn’t just a ghost story. It’s also a psychological horror story, and that subgenre requires character development.
Just like with that sense of creeping dread, the kind of character development King is going for requires time. It can’t just feel rushed. We need to be introduced to the small details, one piece at a time, and then let it digest for a while, before the next one is introduced. Some of these are relevant right now, and others are manifested from the past – and it’s important to pace these two different kinds as well, making sure that the same flavour of breadcrumb doesn’t appear too close to the last one. No, I don’t know what I’m doing with this bread metaphor anymore either, but it works!
Additionally, ‘The Shining’ isn’t just pacing and developing Jack’s time in the hotel. Stephen King is also developing and tormenting his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny. And each of these characters not only has their own backstory, and their own issues to contend with through their time in the hotel, but many POV sections as well. Essentially, King is juggling all of these characters as each one becomes more and more tormented by their situation, and the growing sense of unease delivered by the creeping dread. And all of this takes a lot of time.
So, with all of this made clear thanks to our time in the Overlook Hotel, what have we learned about long books? What reasons might there be for an author taking time with their story? Well, there are potentially more reasons than I have gone through today, but for me, ‘The Shining’ seems to have three major reasons for its longer word count:
It is a dread-focused horror novel rather than a terror-focused one. It wants to build up a creeping atmosphere that slowly, gradually becomes overbearing, as opposed to the more intense and shocking nature a shorter horror story might prefer.
There are several characters in the Torrance family, each one given their own POV passages, each one with lots of backstory and emotional baggage, and each one given development over the course of the story.
This last one feeds into the others moreso than being its own individual thing, but essentially there is a wealth of detail to 'The Shining,' that simply cannot be included in a satisfying way without a more authentic sense of time.
In fact, that sense of time seems to keep burrowing its way back into this essay, doesn’t it? Essentially, that’s what a book’s page count and word count comes down to. How much time does the reader need to invest in your story? But there’s something else time can mean – how much time does the story take to tell? Maybe it takes place over a single day, or maybe it takes a lot longer than that for major shifts to take place. Maybe it keeps things to the bare minimum to deliver a hyper-intensified story, or maybe it’s been packed full of detail that needs to be slowly unpacked.
In any case, it’s clear from ‘The Shining’ how well Stephen King understands all of these things. Not only is it paced effectively to evoke all the right emotions in the reader, but it’s also been paced in a way that makes the passage of time itself feel more authentic within the story.
And to bring all this back to Mr Borges – sometimes a story should be whittled down further in order to have a more compelling, powerful pace. But sometimes a story needs that extra length, that extra density. And sometimes it’s a combination of both – to make sure a book doesn’t rush through something we really need to engage with for longer, but also doesn’t overstay its welcome and waste the reader’s time.
Luckily, ‘The Shining’ doesn’t do either of those things, despite its roughly five hundred pages. ‘The Shining,’ in other words, needed to be exactly this long.