Ways to Hone the writing of Shorts and Typical Key Elements
by Kaye Linden
The above log cabin is where we used to live. Enough said about that.
In organizing my stuff for the new year, I came across a bunch of notes I had made for myself on flash fiction. These are rough notes but might come in useful for you. I give my permission to use them as you wish.
Given with hugs.
The Small frame: up to 1000 words.
Microfiction is under 250 words.
Slice of life stories with either small or panoramic scope, scaled down. The writer takes the big picture and focuses on one angle only.
A single moment or event that changed everything.
The first few lines must setup the story immediately. This is the reader’s ground and orientation to the story. You have less than five seconds to hook the flash reader or he will not read on as he might in a novel.
The protagonist desires something and this desire must reach its peak by the first third of the story. The desired object must be important to the protagonist and the reader. It does not have to be large but can be as small as a river pebble. It is the emotions and events that count.
Begin In Medias Res, in the middle of things. Cut the back story and dive into the middle of an event.
Offer a powerful view or image for the reader to visualize. Focus in like a camera lens.
Myths and old tales make great material. Rework them with your own setting, time period and characters.
Interesting surprises are not mandatory, but they do provide satisfaction for the reader and the writer. If you can offer a surprising twist at the end, that’s great. Some readers might see it coming and others won’t. Keep the reader wondering. Maintain unpredictability.
Surprise can occur anywhere in the piece. One can use surprising language or imagery.
Re-invent the cliché: e.g. instead of “she felt as if she were lying on nails.” Consider: “she felt as if she were lying on hard water” Avoid clichés at all costs. They are boring. “The whole world in his hands” “Sleeping like a baby.”
Focus on the arc or narrative line of the piece and establish one strong story line.
Flash has its own rhythm: rhythm and shape of words, word constructions, phrases, sentences and an overall rhythm that gives flash a unique pacing.
Maintain balance in sentence structure and phrases.
Flash does not accommodate a long, drawn out encounter. Constriction of time and space demands immediacy and a sense of urgency.
Compression of plot, action, dialogue, events and the number and development of characters.
One plot only: a situation that relates to this plot and nothing else: if it relates to something else then throw it out.
One incident and words that relate only to this. The most appealing of plots is that of desire thwarted, and in flash, it is thwarted in miniature.
Minimalism is what flash is about. The number of characters must be limited to two, three maximum. The choice of characters in flash is about advancement of the story, not for any other reason.
Remember that setting can play a character. If using setting as backdrop, offer the reader a familiar reference to orient him: “She sunk into the sand dune like a boulder into water.”
Give the story a sense of meaning. What does it really matter if Tom meets Martha? What if ….?
Tom’s life depends upon Martha’s investigative skills. But she can’t find who’s stalking him…. because she is the stalker.
At the end of the story, something must have changed, become understood, resolved, revealed. Desire thwarted. The protagonist has changed his need for the object or person he desires. The reader is changed.
Ask the question: What is this story really about? Maintain that question throughout the piece and focus the story line on the answer.
Consider cutting the story, if it feels vague or rambles. Relook at the story line. Is there more than one story there? Keep it focused. Plan of action: always consider cutting your final piece by twenty percent. Cut adverbs.
Cut, organize, add and polish. (Four keys to revision.)
Consider linking short stories into a collection or theme. It’s fun for writer and reader.
Point of view and tense choices change a story. Try rewriting a paragraph with a different one.
The ticking clock ─ works every time. The pressure to finish in time, to find the bomb in time, to get the girl before she’s murdered etc.
Don’t underestimate your reader. Write for the intelligent reader. Do not trick them or offer a stale, clichéd ending that they have seen over and over again. e.g. The butler did it.
Each new word or sentence must move the story line forward. Words circle out from a dense story core of meaning and image to a satisfactory ending. Pay attention to the paragraph format and where you place a new paragraph – it is an indication of another step forward in the plot or story.
Each word must count and weigh heavy with meaning or imagery. Use concrete details and not generalizations. Instead of “He needed money to eat.” Try: “He lived in a back alley and unless he found a few dollars, he’d go hungry again today.”
Cut down to minimal use of adverbs and adjectives. Substitute concrete detail woven throughout the narrative or demonstrate by action.
Dialogue has an important place in flash. Even just one line embedded in a narrative will work.
Limit alternatives to “said” Keep dialogue tags simple.
Keep events in chronological order, no matter how insignificant the action. “She jumped into the car but wiped the mud off her shoes first.” “She wiped the mud off her shoes and jumped into the car.”
The title should be striking. It is the first hook as to whether the reader continues or not.
Flash consists of the unsaid, the unwritten, reading between the lines, a hint, a tiny signpost, a suggestion. The reader fills in the gaps.
Throw away one word at a time and see how it affects the story.
Flash lends itself well to experimentation (fixed forms etc.) because you can try any playful writing in a short piece. There’s not a lot of time or emotions invested.
Read,read,read shorts and borrow the methods and techniques that work.
A few notes about prose poetry:
Poetry is not defined by its length, but this is one parameter that helps define flash.
Poetry is about language and poetic device such as similes, alliteration, assonance etc. Language in flash is concise and intense as well, but does not flow into poetic device, forms such as villanelles or sonnets. However, one can experiment with tight forms in flash.
Flash carries a story line. Poetry does not need to.
In poetry words are emphasized by where they are placed in the line ─ end of line, beginning of line, at line breaks etc.
Poetry is partially defined by its line breaks. Flash is not. Narrative poetry and flash fiction can overlap.
In poetry, description can be a technique in and of itself and offers an overall image for the reader. In flash, the description must advance the narrative.
Poetry does not necessarily have a plot. Flash does, even though it can be compressed.
When a reader picks up poetry, he has a different set of expectations than when he/she reads flash fiction. He expects to read a story with flash.
The online mag. PRISM says:
Prose poetry usually features full sentences and no forced line breaks. The difference between prose poetry and micro-fiction is up for discussion — generally, prose poetry focuses more precise attention on language. It’s less narrative than micro-fiction, and asks readers to make larger jumps than micro-fiction might demand. Our word-count limit for prose poems is 250 words.”
READ YOUR WORK OUT LOUD. You will really hear how it sounds.