Sometimes, short is good. A story that cuts from scene to scene, character to character, can be fast-paced and exciting. One of the things I love about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is that, even though the book is a gazillion pages long, each chapter is probably about three pages long. Tolstoy takes us into one character's mind ever so briefly before whisking us away into another character. As a whole, this technique works to present the grandeur of the story. We feel like we are reading about a society rather than a small cast of characters. When I open up that book, I actually feel like I'm in outer space looking down at wee specks of people vibrating about. (It's just my preference that I like books like this. Everything Is Illuminated and Joy Luck Club are a couple of other nice examples.)
Of course, sometimes, long is nice too. I always admire a writer who can keep one character's story exciting over several hundred pages. Catcher in the Rye comes to mind, but I'm sure there are other examples. It takes restraint and focus to be able to do this well. And, when it works, the story never feels small. A different sort of richness emerges as the rest of the world is implied.
As structure and story are intertwined, the decision between breaking up a novel into shorter pieces or keeping the narrative long will have large effects on what you end up with. The trick, at least for me, is to not fall back on one of these choices by default. With my early drafts of Rooster, for example, I often switched points of view simply because because I was stuck. Jumping into another character's head allowed me to restart. As a result, I had a lot of unfinished scenes I needed to go back to.
So, how does one keep it long? For me, the answer is sensitivity. When I'm writing, if I want to stay with a particular story line and I suddenly feel stuck, I go back and try to clue in on avenues I have yet to explore. I try to be sensitive to questions left unanswered, details that could be expanded to reveal more about the character. If I'm going to stick to one narrative line, I want to explore it thoroughly. (Incidentally, I even think the different parts of the three-act structure are organized in such a way as to thoroughly explore you particular subject.)
To keep it short, for me, the answer is grace. A book made up of several short segments has to gracefully transition from one part to the next. If you're going into different characters' thoughts, one technique to transition gracefully is to pan out and then pan in. You start with one character's thoughts, you pan out to describe some external detail that leads to another character, and then you pan in on the other character's thoughts.
Both of these strategies can result in a great story, and it's simply a matter of choosing how you want to tell it. But, with each strategy comes a new set of tools you must rely on.
What about you? Do you prefer long narratives or short pieces? What are some techniques you use to carry out your strategy?
Thanks to Matthew Delman for getting me to write this post.