Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Things to Consider, Things to Avoid

Writing a solid, far-out, totally righteous piece of flash fiction isn't as easy as it looks. It isn't about just gushing 500 words and shutting off the spigot. As the editors of Vestal Review state (and Jason Sanford restates in his excellent essay on the subject):

A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after.

I would even go so far as to say that a cohesive plot, along with brilliant characterization, is next to impossible in less than 500 words - as traditionally written. There just isn't enough space to flesh out a story in this way. That's why, as Jason Sanford decries, so much flash fiction focuses on "detail and scene over thought and opinion."

That is not to say it's impossible. There is something magical about a good piece of flash fiction. Much as a great novel oftens seems shorter than it really is, a good piece of flash fiction seems longer than it really is. There is more to the story than 500 words on a page. To borrow from our artist friends, the author makes as much, if not more, use of negative space as positive space. That is to say, the meat of the story lies in what isn't there as much as what is there. It challenges the reader to see beyond what is told, to - you know - think. I know that's not fashionable, but with the flash fiction form, if it is to have any merit at all, it is a requirement that the reader be engaged as directly and immediately as possible, and challenged to look beyond what they are used to reading in longer forms.

I believe the horror genre is the best genre for flash fiction because horror depends on mood for its affect, and because we are most frightened by the unknown and the unsuspected - and that's perfect for flash fiction. The hint of terror just beyond the door is infinitely more frightening than the monster sitting on your chest. One is about fear and one is about terror; one is a kick to the gut, the other a claw to the spine. Horror, by definition, is about terror, not fear. A gun pointed at your nose is scary as hell, but it's not a horror story. The trick is to use your 500 words to build that sense of horror into a story. The plot need not appear in the words, but it must be implied in them.

Some common forms of flash fiction that you should avoid:

The MFA Story: See this article, if you haven't already clicked on it.

The 'Dear Reader' Story: This is a story that affects the antiquated style of either Edgar Allen Poe or his attic-dwelling stepchild H.P. Lovecraft. The flash fiction form is so restricting and exacting that we sometimes tend to revert to the earliest days of the original flash fiction - that is to say - the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Or to be more accurate, our imprecise memories of Mr. Poe's fine contributions. We fear there isn't enough time to build a story and so we speak in the sort of generalities and "Dear Reader be forewarned" introductions that we find attached to the stories of Poe and Lovecraft. If there isn't enough room to tell your story in 500 words or less, you should just tell your story and don't try to stuff it into the flash fiction format.

Message in a Bottle: This style of story is a warning from beyond. It tells the horrible fate of some doomed individual or lost race or whatever, and arrives either in a bottle or a letter to a young nephew (or other relative, or future inhabitants) about to set out on life's grand and ofttimes frightening journey. It usually ends with some variation on "I only hope someone finds this message..."

The Stinger: Stories that end with an actual or implied "Bwahahahahahaaaaaaa!" Also included in this category is any story that ends with a scream.

The Castle Arrrrrrrrrrg Story: At the end of this First Person POV story, the narrator dies, which begs the question, "How did he/she write his/her story?" This heading derives, of course, from the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the knights find the message inscribed by Olfin Bedwere of Rheged on the wall of the Cave of Caerbannog, telling the location of the Holy Grail in Castle Arrrrrrrrrrrrg. "He must have died while carving it."

The Gazetteer Entry: There is no story here. It is a brief history of some doomed land/people/civilization/world. Often accompanied by a warning to future generations.

More to come as I discover them. But please feel free to make suggestions in the Comments.

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