Last year, I worked on the screenplay for the short film version of The Green Bench. Unlike novels, screenplays are intended to be a group effort. Lots of people bring their abilities and you won’t be happy if you are not flexible. The major plot points and themes, yes, fight for those. However, if you’re fortunate, actors will breathe life into your characters in new ways, chemistry happens between a group of actors that you cannot plan for, the camera crew lights and frames according to their expertise, the director has his or her creative vision, and so on. The director’s creative vision may align with yours and they will still bring new ideas and shading to scenes and to the work as a whole. All of the cast and crew names are on a film for very good reasons.
As with short stories, short films are all about distilling down to the essential elements. Short stories done well are more difficult than novels – in longer works, you might be able to pause to explore or add in another point of view. There is no room for that in short forms. When we got a script that was ready to shoot, it turned out to be an absolute joy on set. Everyone was upbeat and professional. Whenever a crew assembles, sometimes the family is functional and sometimes not. This time it was. There were a handful of smaller parts I wrote with friends in mind and they delivered flawlessly. It’s rare to have that voice in your head be the same one on set and it was pure joy to experience.
Now I am working to expand that short work into a longer one. Oh boy! After all that distillation, now it is time to broaden, develop and enlarge. I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know poet Brendan Constantine and he gave me notes as only a poet can on the short version. Poets look at the small, the minute. If you’ve never asked a poet to give you notes, do. It’s a whole new world! Things I would never have thought of and, perhaps counterintuitively, gave me a few jumping off points to expand the work. For example, is there anyone else in one particular scene that is not referenced who would logically be in the background? Who else is impacted by Evan’s illness? I saw right away that his best friend needs to be a part of the larger story. What is more interesting to explore, before or after? In this case, after is where all the drama lives. I don’t yet know if I will pull it off successfully, but it’s stretching me in unexpected ways and the unexpected journey is the most fun and satisfying.
This week, I welcome back my sometime collaborator, Aaron Gansky (WRITE TO BE HEARD) who has a great post along with Stephen McLain and their guest, Heather Luby discussing flash fiction, one of my favorite forms. In fact, I just wrote the screenplay adaptation for The Green Bench, which The Citron Review was kind enough to publish a few years back. Welcome back, Aaron, and thank you!
Welcome Heather Luby, managing editor of The Citron Review, to take a look at a very popular form of storytelling: Flash Fiction. Because the form is so short (less than a thousand words), authors must be careful to craft the story in a very exact manner. Aaron, Steve and Heather take a look at some ways for you to master flash fiction. These tips and tricks can even help you improve your craft in the writing of your novel. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Remember, you can always find Steve and me on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.
You’ll also notice that the book links below point you to Better World Books. For every book purchased on Better World Books, the company donates a book to someone in need. Great little program (and founded by Notre Dame grads – go Irish!) Now, on to the show notes:
Flash Fiction has several definitions, but the one we use at The Citron Review is a story of less than 1,000 words, which works out to be about three pages. While the form isn’t new, the popularity of it has risen dramatically with the proliferation of online journals. And because the form is so demanding, there are several things you should keep in mind as you write:
When you set out to write, don’t think, “I’m going to write some flash fiction!” If you do, you’ll probably write a story that’s uninspired, or too brief, or not completely realized. Instead, simply write your story. When you are done, if it’s come out as flash fiction, that’s probably what it wants to be. If, instead, it comes out longer, you’ll probably want to keep it at that length. Let the story determine whether it’s flash fiction or not.
Respect the adage “late in, early out.” You don’t have time to give us long, complicated background information. Start in the middle. Your readers are smart enough to pick up the pieces and put them where they go. Also, resist the urge to over explain at the end. The most common advice I give is, “cut the last two lines.” Your sweet spot is usually earlier than you realize. (More on endings later).
Create immediacy. Hit hard and fast. The power of a flash story is in its brevity, in providing enough details to create an emotional resonance that will impact the reader. This, more than anything, is at the heart of flash fiction.
Flash fiction puts a premium on words. Love language. Love imagery. Often, these stories are a type of prose poetry. They carry the same attention to detail, use imagery as symbolism, and, most of all, create a lyrical voice to tell an emotionally resonant story. Often, what happens is not as important as the telling of the events. The moral, the theme, is little more than the emotional impact it carries. Make us feel.
Try to keep the number of characters down. Too many can clutter your story. We only need one or two. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the best stories seldom have more than two characters.
The ending should present a moment of closure. It shouldn’t be abrupt (as if the flash is an excerpt from a larger work). While most flash stories have open resolves, they often point toward a final outcome. The ending is inevitable, but the inevitable is not shown.
Because flash is so imagery-driven, poignant images can often serve as a resolve.
The goal is to find the “truth” not the “twist.” The ending should be inevitable, unavoidable, but can be surprising. Consider the advice, “a great ending is one you never saw coming, but once you’ve read it, it seems as if no other ending would make sense.” This is what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the unexpected but inevitable ending. Poe says the final line of a short story should be like a flashlight that, once read, will shed light on the rest of the story, and illuminate the reader’s understanding in a new way. It’s a tall order, sure, but so is writing great flash fiction.
Some of our favorite flash fiction selections come from a book called Flash Fiction Forward. Namely, Hannah Bottomy’s Currents, which is a story written in reverse order. Each paragraph begins with the words “before that.” Because we being with the end, the end (which is actually the beginning) becomes especially powerful, and hits like a fist of bricks.
A note on “backward stories” and “stories in the form of book indexes” and other gimmicks: Try to avoid them. If you set out to write a gimmicky story, you’ll likely fail. Instead, write the story as the story wants to be told. If, after you have written it, you decide it’s more emotionally resonant to tell backward, say, or in the form of a book index, then go for it. But let the unique telling serve the story, rather than the story serving the gimmick.
Another great flash story is Popular Mechanics by Raymond Carver, which you can find in his collection of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Though it features an nontraditional ending, it is a story that stays with you for the rest of your life.
Some outstanding examples from The Citron Review: Jon Pearson’s Invisible as Godis a fantastic example of a lyrical story-telling, a kind of prose poem, that elevates imagery and detail into the realm of the emotionally resonant. Also, Alan Stewart Carl’s Remaining, which is a more traditional type of story, but one that is very well executed in terms of precise language and detail.
Be sure to submit regularly. The process of submission (and the subsequent rejections and acceptances) will tell you much about what you’re doing right and wrong. Never be afraid to put your work out in the world. It’s the only way to see if your story’s wings are strong enough to fly.