Shorter and Quicker

Last week, we ran five stories that were all under three hundred words. Why? Maybe because I’m obsessed with elegance. The idea of extremely short stories is, I think, unbearably appealing.

The seeds of flash fiction week were planted when I was thinking about short novels. Reading a good story in twenty minutes can be memorable and powerful, but reading a vignette in the time it takes to microwave popcorn–that can be overwhelming.

I was hoping the Nose’s writers would produce good stories, but every one that we ran has stuck with me in some way. Brevity can be attained at the expense of obvious complexity, but when the story is an outstanding one, something can be added, something sophisticated and hard to explain.

To get that word count down, one can choose to discard characters, or scenes, or even skeins of plot; or one can choose to discard adjectives or adverbs, ones that are not pulling their weight quite as well as their neighbors. But last week’s story criteria–not only a maximum word count but a requirement that there be three characters in each tale–more or less presented writers with the choice of removing plot or description. (Nobody skimped on character development; all three stories packed an impressive amount of information into those 300 words.)

As one tries to tuck meaning into corners, a writer’s attention devolves to the shades of meaning in individual words, whether real or invented. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on the writer, and the story. (This can leave a part of a story unresolved. One can hope these discarded cores will prove useful in a future project.)

Writers from last week: How did the 3/300 limits change how you wrote your stories?


4 thoughts on “Shorter and Quicker

  1. Samuel Johnson said, “”Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

    I would say the same about writing flash fiction: it concentrates word choice wonderfully. In my story, I wanted to convey that the widower with the young baby loved his late wife, but wasn’t the world’s most loving husband, and that he was already starting to look at other women. I had a sentence in an earlier draft about him checking out the women who brought him food, but there just wasn’t room for it. But by describing one of them as a “zaftig redhead,” I drew attention to the fact that that is how he viewed her, without going into detail about his lascivious thoughts, or even specifically stating that this was how *he* saw her (not some invisible narrator).

    And this concentration of effect in fewer words is exactly what I hope to achieve in the next draft of my novel. I don’t want things overexplained or even overdemonstrated. I want to convey some emotional effects with just a stroke or two. It’s a lot harder to treat a manuscript of 100.000 words with the same obsessive care as a story of 300.

  2. I am just seeing this post now, but only because my attention span is closely likened to a scared cat in a rain storm. My problem with the limitations of the story was that I’d already had the story largely sketched in my head, and I knew who the characters were, and what their problems were. And once I have all that, the story just won’t leave me alone until it gets told. Picking out the exactly correct scenes and actions that explained who everyone was and what was going on was terribly difficult. As Julie says, though, it does distill itself quite effectively into the most efficient use of words. I am sad for some of the things I had to drop (like more detail about whose blood it was), but all in all, I like how it turned out.

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