Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Keeping it short

with 8 comments

Elie Weisel

Yesterday, I noted that Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic film about the Holocaust, uses its own enormous length as a narrative strategy: its nine-hour runtime is a way of dramatizing, assimilating, and ultimately transforming the incomprehensible vastness of its subject. But there are other valid approaches as well, even to similar material. Here’s Elie Wiesel talking to The Paris Review:

I reduce nine hundred pages [the original length of Night] to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Instead of expanding his work to encompass the enormity of the events involved, Wiesel cuts it down to its core. It’s just one of millions of such stories that could have been told, and its power is only increased by the sense that it’s a single volume in an invisible library of libraries.

A big book is immediately impressive, even newsworthy, but if anything, the author’s hand is more visible in shorter works. The implicit premise of a long book is that it’s giving us an entire world, and in many of the great social epics—from War and Peace to A Suitable Boy—the writer himself is invisible by design. A short work, by contrast, is more about selection, and it foregrounds the author’s choices: the boundaries of the narrative are set within a narrow window, and the result is just as evocative for what it omits as includes. Every painter knows that one of the hardest decisions in making a new composition is knowing where to put the frame. If a big novel is the literary equivalent of a huge pane of plate glass, a short book is more like what the great architect Christopher Alexander has called a Zen view, a tiny opening in a wall that only exposes a fraction of the landscape. When we see a spectacular panorama all at once, it becomes dead to us after a day or two, as if it were part of the wallpaper; if we view it through a tiny opening, or glimpse it only as we pass from one room to the next, it remains vital forever, even if we live with it for fifty years. A short work of narrative sets up some of the same vibrations, with a sense that there’s more taking place beyond the edge of the pane, if only we could see it.

Woody Allen

A shorter length is also more suited for stories that hinge on the reader’s suspension of belief, or on the momentary alignment of a few extraordinary factors. This includes both comedy and its darker cousin noir. Great comic works, whether in fiction, film, or drama, tend to be relatively short, both because it’s hard to sustain the necessary pitch for long and because the story often hinges on elements that can’t be spun out forever: coincidence, misunderstanding, an elaborate series of mistakes. Another turn of the screw and you’ve got a thriller, which tends to be similarly concise. Some of the best suspense novels in the language were written to fit in a pocket: The Postman Always Rings Twice is maybe 120 pages long, Double Indemnity even shorter, the Travis McGee books a reliable 150 or so. Like comedy, noir and suspense are built on premises that would fall apart, either narratively or logically, if spun out to six hundred pages: characters are presented to us at their lowest point, or at a moment of maximum intensity, and it doesn’t particularly matter what they were doing before or after the story began. That kind of concentration and selectiveness is what separates great writers from the rest: the secret of both comedy and suspense is knowing what to leave out.

And that’s equally true of the movies, even if it’s something that a filmmaker discovers only after hard experience. Cutting a novel can be agonizing, but it’s all the more painful to excise scenes from a movie, when the footage you’re removing represents hundreds or thousands of hours of collective effort—which is why an editor like Walter Murch never visits the set, allowing him to remain objective. There’s no better contemporary model of cinematic brevity than Woody Allen, whose movies rarely run more than ninety minutes, partly because his own attention starts to wander: “For me, if I make a film which is one hour forty minutes, it’s long. I just run out of story impetus after a certain time.” And although he’s never said so in public, it’s clear that he arrived at this artistic philosophy in the late seventies, after laboring hard with the screenwriter Marshall Brickman on a three-hour monster of a comedy. Its working title was Anhedonia, and it was going to cover every aspect of its protagonist’s life—childhood, career, romance—with countless surreal sketches and fantasy sequences. The result was an unwatchable mess, so it was only with the help of editor Ralph Rosenblum that Allen was able to find its heart: a quirky, focused love story, with only two major characters, that ran a clean 93 minutes. It was Annie Hall.

8 Responses

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  1. Great piece. Less is more! Am putting this link on my Twitter – robinhawdon@authordebate.

    November 7, 2013 at 8:46 pm

  2. “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”

    There are so many voices discussing the creative process ad nauseum these days that I really thought I’d heard it all, but this is a truly arresting and unique insight. Remarkable. Thanks for sharing it!

    Alex Varanese

    November 7, 2013 at 10:10 pm

  3. If you can’t say it in 200 pages, you probably can’t say it at all. I know it’s not true, but it’s true enough to make me think… I’ve read _Night_ by Wiesel. I think it pales beside _If This is a Man_. I rank the latter as one of the greatest books of the 20th century.


    November 8, 2013 at 4:50 am

  4. @Robin: Thanks!

    @Alex: Glad you liked it—it’s one of my favorite writing quotes.

    @Darren: I haven’t read that one, but I’ve been meaning to check it out.


    November 8, 2013 at 8:17 pm

  5. depends on your goal, Infinite Jest would work like it does at 200 pages (nor 700) the same goes for Satan Tango in cinema. making a novel quite long adds some kind of labour for the reader and should not be overlooked

    refined quotes

    November 9, 2013 at 3:30 pm

  6. Agreed—the length should suit the material. Although when in doubt, shorter is usually better.


    November 10, 2013 at 3:28 pm

  7. Editing by definition improves a text, but it can be multi-dimensional. Personally I am deterred by faceless tomes of unbroken text – why is the author trying to make things difficult for me? They oblige me to take a gamble and unravel the mystery myself. That can be rewarding, but depth can be achieved through a more refined structuring – i.e edit the form not just the content. A journalistic approach can give the reader different levels of access: headline, tags, standfirst, crossheads, boxes, pullquotes, illustrations and body text, even footnotes/links for those hidden “600 pages”. These allow the reader to choose to be drawn in or to abandon the effort when they’ve learnt enough. Disappointingly, most fiction makes do with a publisher’s blurb, a biography and some review excerpts, but some non-fiction comes with multi-level contents pages (e.g. Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘Metamagical Themas’ (


    November 14, 2013 at 2:16 am

  8. I love Hofstadter’s detailed tables of contents—and his annotated bibliographies! And I’m always pleased when I come across a work of nonfiction that beautifully integrates different levels of information. Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is another nice example.


    November 14, 2013 at 9:57 am

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