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Why Flash? Why Bother?

commentary by Mary Rosenblum

When I was a student at Clarion West, years ago, we all started a contest – who can write the shortest story?

Over the space of a week, the posted stories evolved from a page in length to a paragraph to a few sentences. The requirement was that you needed a beginning, middle, end, conflict and resolution. It was a fun exercise. How much can you imply in a few well chosen words?

Now, years later, as a writing teacher, I routinely send my students off to write flash fiction.

Why?

The most common problem I see in novice fiction is sheer wordiness. Yes, you get the story across, the characterization, the sense of place, but it takes a lot of words and in the process, the reader’s mind wanders.

Many of those words aren’t necessary, and while they’re nice, they ‘soften’ the dramatic tension of the story and pad scenes so that readers lose that sense of ‘being there’ as they process all those extra words.

This is not a recipe for compelling fiction.

Flash fiction requires the writer to distill the story to its critical essence. What is necessary for this scene? What is the minimum sufficient to convey the character, his or her emotional state, the conflict of the moment, and the sense of visual here and now?

It requires the writer to make each sentence do more than one thing, and even more importantly, it requires the writer to imply rather than to show in detail.

Why is this important? Why not simply ‘show’ the readers everything? Show don’t tell is the foundation of strong fiction, right?

True, but again, too much is too much. If you carefully spell out every last detail for the readers, it’s more than most of them need in order to ‘share’ the scene with the Point of View (POV) character.

And just as a slow motion video is less compelling than one that moves at normal life speed, so is a ‘slow motion’ story less compelling when compared to one where events seem to take place in the real here and now.

For those writers who dismiss flash fiction because they are only interested in novel length work, they are missing a huge payoff. By learning to imply, you reduce the number of words that you need to include in a scene or chapter in order to compel the readers.

That allows you to focus attention on more critical action and character conflict and effectively increases the pace and dramatic tension of each scene or chapter.

Yes, you can convey the same events and conflicts with more words, but just as a padding of fat blurs the shape of the human body, so does a padding of ‘fat words’ blur the shape of your story.

The more ‘bloated’ your story is – even if that padding is composed of lush and vivid details – the more work your reader will have to expend in order to translate that scene from words on the page to a visual image.

The key to powerful flash, and the key to a powerful scene, is first to analyze the story that you want to convey and determine its heart.

What is the critical part of the story that you must get across to the readers? What will compel them? What will engage them? That is what needs to be on the page. The back story, even the end, can be implied. But the heart needs to be there for the story to work.

A valuable exercise that I often hand out to students or at writers workshops is to begin with a story that is longer – several thousand words even. Now, tell the same story in 1000 words.

Panic!

The average beginner response is to simply start trimming words out of that story. But that doesn’t reduce the size of the story, that merely takes away words, and the final result is usually a several thousand word story that is told like a summary, stripped bare, and not compelling.

Instead, start with the climax, the moment of change where the POV’s path diverts. How much does the reader really need in order to make that climax meaningful to the readers?

Take a step back in the action. Is this enough? No? Take another step back? Is this enough, if you imply the back story? Often it is. Yes, you may lose delightful scenes, fun subplots, but if the story needs to be shorter, this is how you do it without simply stripping a longer story arc to its bare bones.

In the real world of word limits, the ability to shorten a story by changing that dramatic arc as opposed to merely cutting words from it, is a valuable one. It gives you enormous flexibility as a writer, allowing you to rethink a large story idea to suit a shorter word limit.

And, even more importantly, it gives you a much greater awareness and control of story arc and plot structure. It forces you to truly understand where the heart of your story lies. Many novice writers can’t actually tell you what the story is about. They just wrote it.

The second key to powerful flash is word choice.

Here again, most novice writers can use the flash fiction practice. I see a lot of what I call ‘vanilla pudding’ words in novice fiction. Nonspecific words like ‘went’ or ‘walked’ or ‘lunch’ convey some information, but not a whole lot.

The English language offers a world of nuance, and when you try to tell a vivid story in 1000 words or less, every word counts. Jean ate lunch and Jean nibbled on a cold chicken leg convey two different images. Even with the huge landscape of a novel to work in, those specific, compelling words will increase the dramatic power of every scene and bring characters and action into a brighter and sharper focus for the readers.

Slush piles are full of adequately written fiction. You have to be more than adequate to sell your work to major markets and flash fiction is an excellent path to more than adequate.

copyright October 2009 by Mary Rosenblum

Mary Rosenblum lives in Oregon. She is a full-time writer and teacher, as well as Web Editor for the Long Ridge Writers Group.

Her first story, For A Price, appeared in Asimov’s Magazine in 1990. Since then, she has published over sixty science fiction, mystery and mainstream short stories. Her novelette, Gas Fish, won the Asimov’s Magazine Readers’ Award and was nominated for a Hugo award.

In addition, Mary has published five science fiction novels, Horizons, Water Rites, The Stone Garden, Chimera and The Drylands, which won the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has also published a mystery series as Mary Freeman, including Devil’s Trumpet, Deadly Nightshade, Bleeding Heart and Garden View.

Mary blogs about writing at Writing Ruminations. You can also visit her web site at Mary Rosenblum.

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2 Responses

  1. […] In Why Flash, Why Bother? Mary considers the ways that writing flash fiction can benefit other fiction projects. […]

  2. While all that is true, readers don’t read flash because it’s teaching the writer economy. Flash has value in and of itself. Done well the tightness can heighten a story’s impact (for all the reasons you give) making the flash story worth a lot in terms, not just of bang for the buck, but of sheer literary merit.

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