Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writer's Corner: Flash Fiction Is...?

Today Flash Me Magazine debuts our new Writer's Corner, with posts by our editors.

Flash Fiction Is...? by Nicholas Carter

The question “What is flash fiction?” really begs the question, “What is good flash fiction?” In fact, I would argue that the two are one and the same. Among common criticisms that a flash story receives, statements to the effect that a story “feels like part of a longer piece,” or “seems like a character sketch,” or “reads like a scene, not a complete story” do not, in point of fact, show that a flash tale is bad; they banish it from the realm of flash altogether by suggesting that it is just a fragment of story.

This is peculiar to flash fiction. A short story might be criticized for feeling incomplete, but this does not remove it from the realm of short story. A given novel could be stated to feel like part of a longer story, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t a novel - it could be part of a series, and critics would be fine with that. Nobody I know would suggest that any of the Lord of the Rings books are incomplete because they do not finish the story in a single book. Likewise, I don’t think anyone would suggest that they must be merged into one large volume.

But flash fiction defines itself by its brevity and when this brevity fails - either because a piece goes on for too long, or because a piece must go on for too long to give a sense of closure - so fails the piece. Short fiction and novels are generally thought to have certain lengths, but they are not so adamantly defined by length. Failure to complete a story in the minimal amount of words doesn’t make a story bad; it excludes it from the genre.

So if completeness can’t be the measure of “bad” flash fiction, what can? Errors in punctuation and spelling? Unbelievable characters? Lack of focus? These are problems with all fiction. None are specific to flash. If there must be one defining characteristic of extremely short stories, one trait that separates the good from bad, let it be word choice.

Obviously, the careful selection of words is a necessary ingredient in all varieties of fiction, but it is all the more important in flash. A short story writer who decides that a theme is not fully carried by a previous paragraph can simply lengthen the piece. A flash writer is typically limited to 500-1,000 words. There is very little room for error. If some necessary detail is not present at just the right moment, it may be impossible to insert later on.

Each word must be measured; the scale of flash fiction allows for no excess, no imprecision. An idea that can only be carried by two words is at a disadvantage. If that same notion can be concentrated in one, that’s all the better. If you can seal multiple themes into a single word, you’ve begun to write flash fiction.

Perhaps a quick and dirty demonstration is in order: consider the following sentence.

“The ballet dancer leapt nimbly over the stage, a smile on her lips.”

How can this be shortened? Consider what information is being imparted to the reader.

1: There is a dancer.
2: She is currently performing.
3: The dance is ballet.
4: She seems to be enjoying herself.

Firstly, a smile can be understood to be taking place on a person’s lips. Lets renovate the portion after the comma.

“The ballet dancer leapt nimbly over the stage, smiling.”

Although, now the truncated end loses the feel of flowing that the original sentence provided (which suggested a sensation of movement), and while shorter, it suffers artistically.
So let’s merge two of these ideas.

“The ballet dancer leapt joyously over the stage.”

This sentence does not state that the dancer is smiling, but this is fine. In applying a smile to a character, you, the writer, are trying to show your reader that said character is happy. Could our dancer not be smiling? Certainly, but I believe the mental image that “joyously” provides is one of a person whose body language will imply gladness.

And while some might wonder how “joyously” could replace “nimbly”, it comes once again to mental image. Joy implies a gracefulness of the heart, a lightness of spirit which here stands in for the lightness of body. It works well in this capacity by being paired with a verb that indicates an upward motion. That our character is a dancer also promotes the idea of lively motion. Imagine if instead you encountered this sentence:

“The garbage man leapt joyously over the stage.”

We may picture this sanitation worker as happy, (And why not? Perhaps this man is living a long-repressed dream.) but probably not quite so graceful as our dancer, even if he is doing this joyously. Our dancer’s clothes are easy to imagine as thin and consisting of light colors. The garbage man’s clothes are probably baggy and dirty.

Moving back to our original sentence, we may begin to find it difficult to shorten it any more. I might suggest...

“The ballerina leapt joyously over the stage.”

This might work, but “ballerina” makes the sentence feel lengthy. Let’s try…

“The dancer leapt joyously over the stage.”

This is also a possibility, but we’ve lost the idea that said dancer is a ballerina. If the type of dancer she is isn’t an important part of the story, the change doesn’t matter.

One more way we might shorten this…

“Onstage, the dancer leapt joyously.” (Or even, “joyously leapt”)

The difficulty here is that, while shorter, “onstage” has become the focus of this sentence, our dancer moved slightly into the background. We begin to picture the stage first, dancer second. You will note that the further along we went in this exercise, the more things began to fall apart.

There is a point to this: Flash fiction is like cutting diamonds. In choosing to write flash fiction, you have decided to work on something very hard, on a very small scale, where the minutest precision is absolutely vital. Every facet is cut to catch the light; the rigid stone rendered invisible under the flash.

Nicholas Carter
Editor, FMM


Luna Mauvaise said...

I struggle with the cuts sometimes. Since no one is paying me, I suppose it makes no real difference. ;)

The tips are appreciated, nonetheless.

Tao Joannes said...

On the idea of "part of something larger", I'm experimenting with flash series. Each episode, installment, or scene is a complete flash story, but they advance an overall story arc.
I don't know if it's working yet, lol.