I am residing in an odd form of editing hell at the moment. I’m trying to write a flash piece (on a deadline). It can be no more than 700 words. It will be in a professional publication with a very wide circulation (much wider, I’d wager, than most of the genre magazines I’ve been published in), so I really want to make absolutely certain it’s my best work.
But it’s only 700 words. And that’s killing me.
I am not a sprinter. I am a long-term, slow burn kinda guy. I like complexity, depth, backstory and I like to make all that complicated stuff look simple. Trying to strip down a story into its barest components leaves the story feeling naked to me. Like, if I can’t include the occasional witty tangent, then why bother, right?
Flash Fiction (i.e. stories under 1000 words) has always been a mystery to me. I mean, I understand poetry (even prose poetry), but how does something that short have a beginning, middle, end, an interesting character, a developed conflict, etc? I mean, I’ve seen it done, I suppose. Most of the time, though, they don’t feel like stories to me. What’s more, the story ideas I have naturally land somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 words. That, for me, has proven to be the minimum amount of space I’ve been able to tell a story I’m satisfied with. Even those sometimes feel like a sprint to me.
Being a good writer, though, is not about spinning your wheels in the same ruts. It’s about expanding your capabilities, deepening your craft, and welcoming challenges. So this is my challenge: tell an interesting, compelling, complete story in what amounts to 2 standard pages and some change. Not a vignette, not a mere scene – a whole tale.
Here’s some of the strategies I’ve decided to adopt:
Three words: In Medias Res
There is no time for beginnings. We start in the middle, dammit. I can’t hand-hold the audience through pointless exposition. No time, kids! Keep up!
Dramatis Personae? NO: Dramatis Persona
I’ve got space for basically one actual character. There can be other people, but there just isn’t time for anybody else to be developed.
I can cheat, especially on that last one, by using characters and places my audience is already familiar with. The more I can get the reader to fill in the blank spaces themselves, the more space I can have to developing plot.
Pith Over Wit
Being clever takes words and space to accomplish. Being pithy just requires the right jab at the right moment. You can’t tell a raft of jokes – maybe one or two. You can’t build great towers of words – you have to lay foundations of just the right ones, and let the audience do some of the building for you.
…and that’s what I got, folks. We’ll see where it takes me.
And, for the record, this post is 507 words long. The whole damned story would only have 193 left to play with.