I have a new passion.
Though I’ve been writing novels for the last three years and my lifelong dream has been to write books, my roots are in short stories. As much as I love developing characters and taking my time to nurture and coax a novel into being, there is something immediate and raw about short stories that always brings me back to them. I also love the fact that in a short, you can do things that might not be as ‘acceptable’ in a novel. Think about it: after pulling a reader along for 350 pages, he or she usually wants a proper, satisfying ending, which, depending on the genre, precludes cliff-hangers, unresolved issues or the ‘depressing’ ending. Those kinds of books do exist, but generally speaking, most readers don’t break down bookstore doors to buy them. But in a short story, or better yet, flash fiction, those kinds of ‘unacceptable’ things are possible.
I think people expect to be surprised or challenged by short stories or flash fiction. I regard them as the Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits of creative writing. Shock endings, plot twists and red herrings are common. You finish the story and think about it and go, ‘What the–?’ and then realize the writer was cleverly leading you along by the nose the whole time. But it’s okay! You’ve only invested a few minutes of your time and probably went into the story wanting to be thrilled or bamboozled.
So back to my new passion. Flash fiction. I got into it because after writing novels and learning to draw out a story by delving into character, setting and all that, I couldn’t revert back to short stories. I used too many words or over-complicated things. So I was blocked. And frustrated. How do you break down a story that could be told in 3000+words down to 150?
One day, a G+ friend posted a link to a writing prompt site for flash fiction stories of 100 words. Now, I didn’t do much research into what flash fiction was or how to do it. I had read some in the past and had an idea of what it was, so I decided to give it a whirl. What a rush! Here’s Shell (108 words), my first stab at it. The prompt was a picture of a bubble resting on blades of grass. Made me think of tears…
Crocodile tears. Crystaline drops of salted sadness, they fall kamikaze-style to the ground. Spattering, bursting like bloated bubbles they seep into the grass never to be seen again.
The lawn chair groans when I sit. Cars bustle past the yard coughing exhaust. Across, children play in the park, their laughter lilting like flute music. It is the latter which sparked this outpouring. Or rather, it’s the lack of the latter.
A shell of a house. White booties in my hand, a lacy bonnet in the other, both near glowing in their purity under heavenly sunrays. Yet always cold. Never to be used. Forever cold.
And me, forever empty.
Reading it now, especially after having written others since, I can see where it can be tweaked, but I won’t do it because I regard each story (not novels) as a sort of writing ‘growth chart’, which allows me to appreciate my progress over time. But my point is, that this is a story that could be told in many more words to explain things like, who is this woman, how did this tragedy happen, and what will she do next? As this information is withheld, it sort of entrusts the answers to the reader to determine in accordance to his or her preference. Pretty cool writer-reader collaboration, if you ask me.
So how did I manage to do it? I’m sure people have different ways of writing flash fiction, and I’m no master of this format by any means, but I’ll tell you what works for me.
1) I used to write A LOT of poetry. Not all of it was good but it did teach me how to convey big/complex ideas by using very few words. It taught me to eliminate the fluff to see a situation at its core. I think about it as distilling: reducing something to its essence and then conveying that through visual language. Once you put a picture in someone’s mind, you don’t have to describe it further; their imagination does the rest.
2) Fragmented sentences: There’s a lot of talk about not using these in writing but I think they can be used effectively in the right context. When I’m writing from the POV of a character, (ie. inner dialogue) I think it works well. Do we always think in perfect, full sentences? We don’t even speak that way, for the most part. Many words can be eliminated from a sentence while still allowing it to be understood. Our brain fills in the blanks—as long as the writer writes in a way that is clear, of course. The good thing about these kinds of sentences, too, is that they focus on what is essential to the sentence itself and the story, so again, it’s like another form of distilling.
3) Focus on emotion: digging into the emotional aspect of a story to provoke a response in the reader, is key. You don’t want to leave your reader cold or indifferent, especially when you only have a few words to grab and hold their attention. Even if the story itself isn’t perfect, if you have moved your reader then your story made an impression, which is what the reader will remember anyway.
So that’s it folks. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on flash fiction and short stories, what works (or doesn’t) for you, etc.