Why You Can't Write about Fleas

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.—Herman Melville

Not every big idea needs to be in a big package. Often, the things that we remember are the short phrases and concepts. That was the thought behind Ernest Hemingway’s original six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

You can read that story, short and haunting, in a matter of seconds.

On the flipside, it takes hours—maybe days—to read all of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s 587,287 words.

If you’re not familiar with book lengths, I’ll lend a hand.

  • The King James Bible has 788,258 words

  • Fahrenheit 451 has 46,118 words

  • The Hobbit is 95,022 words long

  • Oliver Twist is 155,960 words

  • East of Eden is 225,395 words

A long story isn’t guaranteed to be better or worse than a short one—in fact, length often has nothing to do with the merit of a tale.

I know you have a burning desire to know: what, then, makes a good story?

Obviously, all the factors everyone already knows: lovable (and despicable) characters, a hearty plot line, good writing. But at the end of the day, none of those are the defining factor that weeds out a classic from pulp fiction.

It’s the idea.

If you want your writing to last, you need to write about a subject that lasts. Technology, trends, style . . . the list goes on and on, and it’s all transient.

But redemption, restoration, courage—those themes have been around forever, and they’re not going anywhere.

Whether you’re writing Leo Tolstoy or Ernest Hemingway style, write about the big ideas. They’re the ones that stick around past the end of the year.