Are short stories good preparation for writing a novel?

I see this question asked frequently on writing boards, and I’m at a place in my own writing to answer Yes.

I focused on short stories for a few years because I was trying to create my own self-paced MFA in fiction writing. The creative writing course that I tried in college did not move me toward my goal of commercial fiction. Dollars go a lot further when spent on how-to books, online seminars, and an occasional paid evaluation instead (I found the Writers of the Future contest valuable because I could enter for free and get detailed feedback about where I fell in their slush pile).

Short fiction is a great way to make sure that you have mastered basic skills, and that you can keep the bicycle upright and moving. It takes a complete narrative to apply storytelling lessons, and I have time to finish multiple short stories a year, but not multiple novels. I don’t think I would have absorbed information as quickly without practice. My stories from 2017 mostly fell over, and the friends kind enough to read them probably suffered. But in 2020 I completed five short stories, and by mid-2021 I have sold two of them at professional rates.

I think I’ve reached the point where it matters where the bicycle is going: whether the story concept is interesting to the reader is more important to the success of a work than my technical skills. That’s uniquely terrifying, because I can only feel motivated to complete a work if I’m excited, and I am a weirdo with a poor grasp of what normal people think about all day.

And I’m setting my writing routine aside for a few months because our youngest son has a congenital heart defect and requires open heart surgery this Fall. It’s been a chance to examine how I spent my writing time and to plan how I will spend it in 2022. When I come back it’s time to focus completely on the novel that’s about a quarter done, and send it out into the world somehow.

Of course, short stories differ from novels in more way than length. I don’t think they are required before writing a novel, but I do think they are the most efficient way to practice the entire process of fiction writing, including submission.

A Eucatastrophe is not a Deus Ex Machina

The literary concepts of deus ex machina and eucatastrophe are not synonymous. Both are sudden reversals at the climax of a narrative where things are looking grim for our protagonists, but calling eucatastrophe a subset of deus ex machina misses an important nuance.

Deus ex machina, “god from the machine,” is a term originating from ancient Greek theater. When the heroes were in an impossible situation and the play was out of time, a god character would be lowered from the rafters above the stage and hand them victory. Today this is considered flawed storytelling. It breaks the integrity of the story to have an external force resolve the conflict: nothing leading up to this point actually mattered. It feels arbitrary, as if the storyteller had no plan.

The eu (good) catastrophe, the happy disaster, also saves our heroes from an impossible situation. But they are saved because the outcome of their failure is unexpected success. It is not an external intrusion, but a direct consequence of the story pieces already in play.

Since Tolkien defined the term eucatastrophe in On Fairy Stories, an explicitly religious essay defending the specific writing goal of pointing to Christ’s resurrection with fiction, I consider it disingenuous to separate the term from a Catholic mindset when defining it (as Wikipedia has done, and I assume some literature courses somewhere). When Tolkien proposed the term eucatastrophe, we know from the text and his letters that he was thinking of Christ. As a Catholic, he believed that Christ’s complete defeat and death was a necessary part of the process that saves mankind.*

In a eucatastrophe, what looks like a huge loss is the reason that our heroes succeed. It’s not merely an emotional beat sequence of almost-defeat and then unexpected-success, but a causal link.

The archetypal example of the eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work is not the eagle rescue, but Gollum biting the ring from Frodo’s hand. You can also find deus ex machina in Tolkien: he used both literary devices to explore a larger theme of grace. But in a eucatastrophe, the interference of supernatural grace is not a negation of character agency but instead uses the antagonist’s actions, intended to harm the heroes, for their good instead (as in the story of Joseph, Genesis 50:20).

Another common way of summarizing Tolkien’s eucatastrophe essay is to see only an argument that a deus ex machina providing an unearned rescue can be satisfying. And I think that statement is correct, and that not all story consumers count it as a flaw. But defending deus ex machina does not need a new term, so I’ll fight for using eucatastrophe to indicate a different literary technique, one that does not break the logical chain of events making up a plot.

* Footnote… I am summarizing recklessly here, since theologically this is one of those Big Deals that gets subtle quickly, and what I consider relevant to this argument is Tolkien’s understanding when I am not myself Catholic. See Catholic Biblical commentary on Luke 24:26.