Flash Fiction! Aah!

Many years ago, when I first came across the concept of flash fiction, I thought it sounded like a fashionable waste of time, without literary value of any kind. These days, I realise how totally wrong I was. I have seen the light. In fact, I am a fully converted reader and writer of 500 word, 100 word, 50 word and even 6 word stories, though today I want to focus on stories that fall somewhere in the region of 50-500 words (I find the discipline of writing a 6 word story is somewhat different, though many of the same rules apply).

One of the obvious perks to flash fiction is that you can have it written in a relatively short period of time. After all, flash fiction is usually defined as a story which is written in fewer than 1,000 words – the length of an average Penstricken post (in fact, the posts on this website often go a little over 1,000 words). Well, I manage to write these posts in a single morning most weeks so… how hard can it be to write a story of half that length, or even less?

Harder than you think. Remember, we’re not writing a poem or an essay here but a story. That involves the same basic elements common to all stories such as characters, plot and so forth.

One of the most important things to remember is that no matter how long your story is, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning, where everything is normal for your protagonist until that fateful day; a middle, where your protagonist faces the conflict or problem the story focuses on; and an ending, where your character’s problem has been resolved one way or another and life goes on (though it may never be the same again). I do apologise if this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, but it’s a point worth labouring.

You see, one of the traps writers of flash fiction (myself included) often fall into is missing out one or more of these vital parts because their word count is so limited. Usually (for me anyway), the temptation will be to skip straight to the ending. So the first line of your story might look something like this:

Michael stood with his father’s blooded sword in hand, glaring at Kar across the volcano’s fiery chasm…

Woah, woah, hold the bus a minute! Who’s Michael? What happened to his father? Whose blood is it on the sword? What’s his beef with Kar? What are they doing on top of a volcano? This is the kind of line you might expect to find at the climax of a story, not at the beginning! You’re starting at the end!

I know, I know… you’ve only got a couple of hundred words to play with, if that much. But the way to deal with that limitation isn’t by chopping off vital parts. Instead, try to include all the parts using as few words as possible. It might be tempting to do this by dividing your word count in three and allotting so many words to each section (so in a 100 word story, each part would be about 33 words long). I’m not entirely convinced that’s the best approach however. In most stories, the middle section is usually the longest part and I would argue that the same is true in flash fiction. Aim, therefore, for a very snappy beginning and ending. For instance, in the last 100 word story I wrote, my beginning was only 17 words long and my ending was 14 words. That gave me 69 words to play with in the middle in which my character faced and dealt with his problem.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of characters. Characters are the beating heart of every good story. Because your word count is so limited, you need to give yourself as much room as possible to develop your characters. The sensible thing to do, therefore, is try to keep the number of characters to a minimum. Any more than three is probably pushing it and I wouldn’t even go that high if your story is fewer than 100 words long.

Introduce your characters at the very beginning. We don’t have time for detailed backstories, so my advice would be to keep it simple. Tell us who they are and what their situation is:

Simon thought about boarding a different bus today and escaping forever. He hated Mondays.

Boom, job done. He’s called Simon, he is toying with running away and he hates his job (we can glean that from the fact he is planning on running away from a place he regularly commutes to and the fact he hates Mondays; after all, why else do people hate Mondays?). That’s a slice of the everyday for Simon. This beginning also works because his fantasy of escape foreshadows the possibility that he maybe will escape. It forces the reader to wonder whether or not Simon will ever be free from his monotonous life. Obviously if we were writing a novel we would need a lot more than this, but it’s plenty for flash fiction.

Now comes the middle, where we turn Simon’s life upside down.

‘Simon Brown, I am going to make you a wealthy man.’ Someone said in his ear. ‘Follow me.’

Well, I’m not going to write the rest of the story for you but I’m sure you get the idea. Does he go with the mysterious stranger or not? Whether the answer to that question is yes or no, I would generally recommend centring your middle around this one key event. If we’re going to develop a satisfactory character arc, we need something that will change Simon for better or worse, but we need to do it in only a few sentences.  Therefore keep the action simple but loaded with significance.

I recently read an excellent 100 word story by one Jeanne Waddington entitled The Accident (available here – round 1, runner-up) in which a teacher “accidentally” spills a cup of water on a pupil who has wet himself. That’s the central event. Simple, right? And quick – it’s easy to describe this event in a few words. However, the result of this seemingly minor event is that the protagonist goes from being afraid and ashamed to being confident and happy. So:

Beginning: Percy is sitting in school having just wet himself. This is a slice of his normal life.
Middle: Suddenly, the problem strikes! It’s playtime! Everyone will know he wet himself! Fortunately, along comes Mrs Gently to spill water on him.
Ending: Percy’s problem is solved. He can enjoy playtime without shame.

That, I believe, is what makes flash fiction uniquely valuable as a form of story telling. By writing with such a tight word count, a skilled author can turn even the most small and seemingly insignificant events into something meaningful and even exciting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be imaginative or even include a bit of magic or fantasy in your flash fiction (my most recent 100 word story involves time travel!); just be realistic with how much you can squeeze in and don’t let the length of your story compromise the quality of the story.

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Learning From Rejection

I hadn’t really intended to post another one of my own stories this year. I know you probably don’t come here just to read my rejected competition entries and to be honest, I always intended (and still do intend) for Penstricken to be a blog about fiction as an art-form, rather than a dumping ground for my odds and sods. The reason I have decided to post just one more of my own stories this year is because it’s nearly Christmas and this story does have a bit of a Christmas theme going on in it. However, rather than just giving you the story to read and expecting you to like it, I’m going use this story as an example of how writers can (and should) use their rejected stories to help them develop as writers, by analysing their own work to see how they might improve upon it.

So, without further ado, here is the story I submitted (originally without a title) for the Scottish Book Trust’s fifty word story competition (Dec 2015). Since it did not win, it was an ideal choice as a seasonal story for our study in self-improvement.

Cold Brass
By A. Ferguson

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play. But the supermarket’s manager had offered us all free mince pies if we stood outside in the snow for an hour and played a few carols.

Easy.

Now if only I could get this thing off my face…


This is a tale about a gluttonous musician who sees an easy opportunity for free mince pies (traditionally eaten in the UK during Christmas time), only to end up with his trumpet stuck to his mouth because of the cold. Anyone who has ever played the trumpet outdoors in winter (like me!) will tell you that the mouthpiece can be excruciatingly cold if the temperature is low enough (though I admit, I don’t know for sure if anyone has ever actually become stuck to their trumpet in this way or not).

The first thing I considered in coming up with this story was the competition instructions. The story had to include the phrase ‘cold as ice’ somewhere in the body of the text and with an upper limit of only fifty words, you can’t afford not to make those three words count. For me, this was the biggest stumbling block to constructing a story I was proud of. I allowed those rules to restrict my imagination, insofar as when I read the instructions, I immediately began trying to imagine physical objects which might be accurately described as being ‘as cold as ice’, with a view to constructing a story around them. Having read the winning entry to this competition (available from the Scottish Book Trust’s website), I noticed that the author of that story took a very different approach, incorporating the phrase ‘cold as ice’ into the dialogue of an altogether more original and imaginative story than the one I produced. The end result was a story with a profound theme running through it, which very likely stood out from what I imagine to have been a crowd of stories dealing with Christmas and winter in general.

In short, a better approach for me might have been to write a good story and make it fit the given instructions, rather than allow the instruction to stifle my imagination.

However, sticking with the plot I’ve got, I think there are still a few things that could be done to improve the basic flow of the narrative. For example, I feel like the second sentence starting where it does creates an uncomfortable pause and would perhaps have worked better if it were joined with the sentence that went before, like so…

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play, but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Better? Maybe?

I’m not sure about the parenthesis (‘almost painful to play’). Rather than constructing a sentence which basically says, ‘The mouthpiece was cold and I didn’t like it’, it might do better to do something like this:

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Most of us can probably imagine what it feels like to have ice pressing against our lips, even if we’ve never actually experienced it. Perhaps if you’re a writer, you’ll have heard the old axiom about showing, rather than telling. Well, that’s what this is. Now the simile is used to help the reader feel for themselves what it is like to blow a trumpet on a snowy day, rather than to give fairly bland technical descriptions of a cold mouthpiece and a nondescript sensation which is almost-but-not-quite pain. It also brings our word-count down a single word, allowing us to use that word somewhere else! Yay!

Removing superfluous words is always a worthwhile exercise, especially in flash fiction. If it’s not vital, chop it. So, to further improve this sentence, I chopped and swapped a few words and with a bit of shuffling was even able to add words which I feel made the narrative a little clearer:

The trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had promised the band free mince pies if we stood out in the snow and played a few carols to the shoppers.

The main thing I have removed here is the fact that the band played for an hour. Who cares how long the band played for? That’s really not the point of this story. The point of this story is that a glutton did something that should have been nice and Christmassy for selfish motives and got his just desserts at the end of it. So I chopped that bit out and replaced it with more detail of what he was doing, rather than for how long. I also replaced the words ‘us all’ with ‘the band’, in order to make it clearer exactly who the narrator is talking about.

Incidentally, I’ve still got a word to spare after all this.

I hope this is giving you an idea of what a useful thing it is to analyse and try to improve upon your own work. It can be tempting not to bother doing any of this, especially for flash fiction which you only spent a few days working on and are not likely to ever look at again. But even if you don’t have any further plans for your rejected work, it is still worth doing something like this. Taking a little time to honestly and critically consider things you might have done to improve upon your ideas and your use of language will help you to develop your skills and prevent you from making the same mistakes in any future writing project you embark upon, whether you are an enthusiastic amateur or a well established multi-award winning author.

 

The Martian’s Revenge

I may have previously mentioned that there are few things stimulate creativity in writing quite like a deadline. If you’re like me, you’ll probably have multiple competitions and other deadlines on the go at once and will be heavily reliant on your calender to keep you on track.

Of course, that only works if you put the correct date in your calender. What follows is a story I had written for a 50-word story competition which had to be set in my native Scotland. I was never very happy with this story, but being keen to meet the deadline I persevered with it anyway and was just about to submit it when… disaster! I had put the wrong date in my calender! I have missed the deadline!

Not wanting to waste all the effort and frustration I went to, I’ve decided to post it here instead. I wanted to make it stand out from the other competition entries and given that it had to be set in Scotland I thought perhaps a  Scottish sci-fi/murder mystery might be the way to go. Just to give you a little context if you’re not Scottish, the chip shops here sell deep-fried Mars bars. Bear that in mind.

The Martian’s Revenge
by A. Ferguson

DCI Mcleod had never seen anything like it. The chippie’s owner lay dead, his head submerged in the fryer. Witnesses claimed they saw a tall green man burst from the chippie carrying armfuls of Mars bars, who fled the scene in a strange car which literally flew into the night.