Hey Novelists – You Should Be Experimenting With Your Form!

As both a reader and a writer, I’ll admit I’ve always been drawn to fiction and to novels in particular. Novels are my preferred form of literature. I’ve enjoyed the occasional narrative nonfiction, short story, or poem—but I haven’t spent time seeking out too much of either. As it turns out, by turning a blind eye to all forms of literature beyond my preferred novel, I’ve been stunting my growth as a writer. It feels like a ‘Duh!’ moment in retrospect—of course I knew my prose wasn’t perfect—there were (and still are) many areas where I can improve my craft! But it wasn’t until those long pandemic winters, when I began taking online courses to try to connect with other writers and revitalize my writing life, that I truly began to see the connection between studying alternate forms and improving my work as a novelist.

Poetry

Image of Book: One Hundred Best Poems

As a literary form, poetry is about as concise as it gets (I’m not talking epics!). The challenge for the poet is to pick the best words possible to evoke a single, highly specific feeling in the reader. By reading poetry as a writer, you can learn the skill of selecting highly specific and impactful words to sharply convey imagery in your own writing!

Short Stories

To state the obvious: short stories are like novels, only shorter! By which I mean: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You’ll need to learn how to master all of those things as a novelist, and you’ll also need to learn to master finishing your story. This is what makes short stories a fantastic exercise for those wishing to eventually conquer a longer form of fiction—they allow you to practice all the same elements of longer form fiction but on a much smaller scale. It’s also easy to get lost in the weeds when writing a novel, which can lead to overwhelm, dejection, or lost confidence. If any of this sounds familiar, try your hand at short stories. (And if the idea of a short story just doesn’t appeal, novelettes and novellas are longer than short stories but smaller than novels, and may provide a canvas that’s a bit more expansive while also allowing you to practice something shorter than a novel!)

Flash Fiction

Image of electricity flashing from electron

Flash Fiction is the severest form of the short story, ranging from just a few up to about 1,000 words. Combining both the conciseness of poetry and the full story arc of short stories, experimenting with Flash Fiction can give you the best of both worlds. As with poetry, you’ll need to focus on finding the fewest, aptest words to evoke sensations in your reader. Like short stories, they can help you practice the art of finishing your story, and they can also help you hone your beginnings, middles, and endings. It’s a challenging form, but it can be rewarding, too.

Scriptwriting

Image of Hollywood clapper resting against a tree

Playwriting or screenwriting is very different from most other forms of writing in that the writer is pretty much limited to just movement and words. (There are sparse descriptions and stage directions, too, but those are meant for stagehands and actors, not the play’s ultimate audience.) Because so much of the story needs to be conveyed by the actions and words of the players, scriptwriting can be a masterclass in crafting great dialogue and in using physical action or movement to convey information without exposition. If your work tends to be exposition heavy or if you have trouble crafting intentional, snappy dialogue, reading a book or taking a class in writing scripts may help!

There are of course many ways you can go about trying to improve your writing–experimenting with form is just one of them! You may also try experimenting with genre, or with writing for different target audiences in mind. Maybe you write picture books, but have always wanted to try your hand at memoir. Maybe if you do, you’ll not only wind up with a great piece of narrative nonfiction . . . but also some transferable skills that will take your next book to the next level!

Have you tried experimenting with form, genre, or anything else in your work? How did it go? Tell us what helped and what didn’t!

11 comments

  1. Sound advice, Rebecca. Haven’t left the novelist world for writing or reading in a while. Time to shake things up.

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  2. An entire novel in verse is an accomplishment! Good luck with the sub, I hope it finds its home. I also tried my hand at a screenwriting class. I came up with a pretty fun project… but ultimately it wasn’t for me, either. I think the reason I love novels is because there is so much room to EXPAND…though that can be a trap, too!

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  3. An entire novel in verse is an accomplishment! Good luck with the sub, I hope it finds its home. I also tried my hand at a screenwriting class. I came up with a pretty fun project…but ultimately it wasn’t for me, either. I think the reason I love novels is because there is so much room to EXPAND…though that can be a trap, too!

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  4. I have experimented with almost all of these except for flash fiction, but that is one that fascinates me! I may have to try it sometime.

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  5. I started with picture books and have steadily moved my way up through chapter books, middle grade, and YA. I even dabbled in adult writing by submitting a short story to a contest. I have tried rhyming poetry with a couple of my picture books, but prefer a lyrical turn of phrase and a strong verb. I often use short stories to teach reading comprehension to middle schoolers – not only to they have a defined beginning, middle, and end, they’re rife with literary devises like foreshadowing and personification! Thank you for sharing your ideas, Rebecca!!

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    1. You have always been such a versatile writer, Laura! I bet writing rhyming poetry is a great exercise to get your creative brain working. And you bring up a great point that short stories can also help you focus in on a specific narrative device!!

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  6. I just wrote a novel in verse. It’s out on submission right now. I also play around with haiku, picture books (fiction and nonfiction), personal essays, short stories, flash fiction, and longer forms of poetry. I once wrote a screenplay, but it’s in a drawer. It’s not really my thing. Love playing around with form, and highly recommend it.

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