Let me be brief

[May 2008] If I do this right, this post will be exactly 500 words (not counting the title). Why? Because it shouldn’t take more than that to discuss (not “talk about”) flash fiction, the class of stories shorter than X words (where X could be 1000, 500, 250…). For example:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This six-word “story,” penned by Ernest Hemingway, never a garrulous writer to begin with, is often cited as the ne plus ultra of flash fiction. Despite its brevity, it packs a fearsome wallop. Does it have a protagonist? Sure—the unseen parents. Is there conflict? The worst kind. Resolution? Ah, yes, and a poignant one at that.

Flash stories often resemble prose poems. Not many writers go to Hemingway-esque extremes (but here are some.) It’s challenging enough to create a beginning, middle and end in a few hundred words, let alone just a few.

I regard writing flash stories as another way of improving my craft and honing my word choice acumen. Normally, I inspect every sentence to see if it’s necessary. With flash fiction, I scrutinize every word. Is there one that means the same as these two? My writing becomes more precise and the ruthless editing process is akin to a fire sale: almost everything must go. Not many story ideas are well served by such a confined space. It needs to be a small, punchy story, usually told in a single scene with very few characters.

Years ago, I distilled a 3000-word story to a 500-word flash version. I’m not sure it was an entirely successful exercise, but it made me think differently about narrative and dialog. How can I represent things without actually saying them? What’s the best way to draw readers into the creative process? Didn’t those six words above activate your mind when you read them? Tell me you didn’t see the shoes, white, pristine and forlorn, laces neatly tied in bows. Were they on a mantelpiece like a souvenir, or in a box in the closet like a family secret? Did you, however briefly, consider a scenario that explained what happened to the baby?

When there is a hard upper limit on word count, the way I work changes. I write a bit, take stock of where I am, and then unwrite as much as possible to provide breathing room. I often choose present tense because it requires fewer words as a rule. Dialog becomes terser than noir. Only the very best adjectives survive, and precious few adverbs do. Verbs sizzle.

Flash stories work especially well in online publications. They occupy only a few screen pages and require little scrolling. They can be read, well, in the time it took you to read this essay. Like poems, they conjure up vivid imagery and fully engage the reader’s imagination.

As creative exercises, they make writers more aware of language, all it’s nuances and shades and textures, and of the impact of every written word. That’s pure poetry, in my opinion.

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