Last week I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the things that stood out to me was that is a long film. It reminded me of how long watching Avengers: Infinity War felt last year, and as it turns out, those two films have almost exactly the same runtime.
But while these two films share the same length of time, their scopes are drastically different. Avengers features a central cast of nearly thirty and thousands of extras. It is peppered with constant dialogue and frequent set changes. 2001, meanwhile, features four main characters, and maybe two dozen extras. It has very few sets, and extremely sparse dialogue. Avengers seems more expansive, but 2001 seems deeper.
Neither film is wrong for its approach, they are just trying to accomplish different things. Each of them are epic in their own way. Avengers makes you feel like you’ve hurtled across multiple galaxies. 2001 invites you to sit in an environment, and gain a real understanding of its weight and feel. Avengers weaves together numerous points of conflict to ratchet up tension, 2001 accomplishes the same thing by making you witness the slow, methodical betrayal of a single AI.
The idea of choosing a scope is common to all forms of creativity. In the same canvas a painter could either create a sweeping landscape, or a closeup on a pair of hands. Both option has its own intrigue and beauty.
These perceived differences are not random, there is a direct correlation between time spent on a moment and its perceived weight. An author planning out their next work needs to be aware of this fact, and leverage it wisely.
The Amount of Time Matters)
It is true that one author might evoke powerful emotions with fewer words than another, and there is no simple formula that can tell you X number of pages will result in a particular level of emotional connection. That being said, we generally tend to give the most value to things that last a significant amount of time. We do this in life itself, but also in the stories we read.
A character that is introduced three pages prior will not be missed like one that has been present through the bulk of a novel. A daring rescue that takes a mere page to perform will not have as much tension as one that spreads across three chapters. Merely using words to suggest extremes are not sufficient. Telling me that the situation is “very, very dire” will never impact me so much as spending a significant amount of time in an oppressive atmosphere.
Also, the amount of time spent on one item relevant to another matters. Not everything in your story can be the most important. You want to direct the reader to the things that matter most by breezing past the unimportant and dwelling on the significant. Thus a waiter that takes the main character’s order should be limited to a sparse description, whereas the main villain would be etched out in detail.
In the example of Avengers, it is an extremely fast-paced story throughout, except for the rare moments where it pauses in scenes that are intended to convey the deepest emotional impact. Just by pausing to let us breathe in that space makes them all the more poignant as a result.
Breadth vs Depth)
I mentioned above that 2001: A Space Odyssey felt deeper than Avengers: Infinity War. I chose that word deliberately. The viewer feels as though they are being lowered into its atmosphere and having it permeate them to the core. Every setting in 2001 feels more real because of all the meticulous detail that is in them. The viewer feels like they are inhabiting a place that actually exists.
Avengers, on the other hand, is broader than 2001. Where 2001 evokes only a few powerful emotions, Avengers runs the entire spectrum from joy to despair. Its people and places may feel more pretend, but they have a sense of extending out of the periphery and into the infinite. There is a sense that there is always something more happening just around the corner.
Breadth and depth are mutually exclusive. One cannot write both of them into a scene at the same time. The moment we pause to focus on a detail, immediately we have narrowed the scope of that scene. It is possible to transition between the two, such as having a broad montage that changes to a single scene described in detail, but where one begins the other will end..
The last thing to consider about scope is that it is limited by its bounds. A common consideration when writing a story is how long it will be. Once that length has been determined, there remains a great variation in what it can cover, but there are some practical limits.
For example, trying to cram an epic into a 500 word short story would test that format’s limits, as would employing a 500,000 word trilogy to cover the events of a single day. Frankly, I have been on the wrong side a few times of fitting a scope to a story’s length. Even my most recent work, Instructions Not Included, is already pushing out of its boundaries.
I am currently writing the last segment of that story now, and I have found that it isn’t large enough to elegantly tie off all of the threads that I began. So instead of having complete closure, I have had to settle for completing the first act. That inflection point brings some sense of resolution, but also begins new arcs that extend beyond the length of my short story.
I’ve run into this issue with my short stories before. Without meaning to, this blog has been a place where I can test-drive longer form stories, and see which ones I remain interested in after the first ten thousand words. Sometimes you need to start writing a story first, until you understand what it wants its scope to be. Then you can select the length that will accommodate it. In any case, come back on Thursday to see the conclusion to Instructions Not Included, and I’ll share a little more about what I think its scope and length should be. I’ll see you there!