In a previous post I talked about the limits of flash fiction — the hard ceiling of 1,000 (or sometimes less) words that force a writer to focus his energies in such a way that makes him, paradoxically, freer to explore techniques of language and narrative. In that post I talked of gardens of various sizes, and mentioned walls and fences. The walls of my analogy were the hard word limits of flash beyond which no word count could go.
But think of flash fiction — indeed, all fiction — as being surrounded not by a fence, but a window frame. When we look out the window from a fixed position we see only a slice of the world itself. Prior experience tells us there is more to the world than meets the eye, but so too do various clues in the scene itself — perhaps we only see a part of a road, or the shadow of a tree, or, indeed, neighbors moving in and out of frame. Good, evocative fiction should do this too, it should hint at a larger world.
My own domain of genre fiction demands this more so than contemporary fiction, and so as a technique I think it is more important for writers of science fiction, fantasy, and assorted other ‘speculative’ or fantastical stories to seed their story with such cues to achieve a measure of believability. Set a story in the modern world dealing with modern problems and the believability is already there — both the audience and, perhaps more importantly, the author believe in that world because they live in it already.
One of my favorite things about Every Day Fiction are the comments left by such a large variety of readers. And there is always one thing I want to see in the comments section, one thing that lets me know I succeeded in my job as illusionist and world-maker, and that’s when someone tells me that the story felt like part of something larger. That means nothing more nor less than my fictional world had achieved a level of believability that persuaded the reader into thinking that there was indeed more beyond the frame of the window.
And, truth be told, there always is more beyond the frame that the reader does not see — the ideas the writer has about the world and its characters that just don’t fit in the story in explicit or elaborated-upon ways. But rarely is there a great deal, as least for my stories, as it doesn’t make sense to imagine a novel’s worth of back story to lend authenticity to a 1,000 word piece of fiction — if that were the case, one would just write the novel. No, there is a trick to it.
The first and most important aspect of doing this has to be the the writer’s own belief. You have to believe you are writing about a world and character that exists beyond the 1,000 word window frame that you are confining them to. This isn’t magical thinking on the writer’s part, rather it is a deliberate way to get into the mindset of someone writing contemporary fiction. In contemporary fiction, the author knows the world intimately because it is the one he lives in, and he is free to reference or hint at so much that we all take for granted. And that’s the second part of our approach, taking things for granted.
Robert A. Heinlein is famously held up as an example in this regard; whereas science fiction prior to him would often draw attention to the differences in the setting with descriptions of the gee-whiz gadgetry, Heinlein would cut right through it with something as simple as his character crossing from one room to another through an electronic door with the words ‘the door dilated.’ Major breakthrough in believability, because it presents an unfamiliar world as familiar, and therefore gives it a reality that exists apart from the narrative. Heinlein took the old SF fence of highlighting the differences of things and turned it into a window frame that suggested that those things you wanted to know where all there if you were to just tilt your head and look through the frame at a different angle.
Giving your audience everything on a plate is the worst way to tell a story — in fact, it’s often what’s meant by the condemnation of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’ The best way to paint a scene is to get your reader to imagine it for themselves — and sometimes that can be done more effectively with fewer, rather than more, words. By the same token, making a world feel real to an audience involves getting them to supply the answers to questions you carefully suggest to them. ‘The door dilated’ does this beautifully, as the reader instantly imagines for himself what a more plodding author would have begged him to believe with an extended description. Getting your reader to internalize the truth of your world by forcing them to meet you halfway on some of the speculative or unique elements within it makes such fiction essentially collaborative.
Curiously, I sometimes hear ‘this felt like something bigger, I wanted more’ as a kind of minor criticism, as if by suggesting a larger world and then not delivering it in full I’ve somehow reneged on my authorial agreement. I know how to read between the lines when I see this. When the reader might bring this up as a flaw I see it as proof positive that they had become emotionally involved in my story and believed it enough to be disappointed when they realized there was in fact a fence obscuring their view of the rest of the world where they had been certain a window frame existed. Perhaps they feel as if a trick as been pulled on them — and it has, as writing is a great deal about illusions and trickery. Wanting to see the rest of a world that does not exist — that is, in fact, constructed almost entirely out of a few hinting references scattered here and there and made stronger by authorial conviction — and then being disappointed that you can not indeed actually see that world, must to be the greatest compliment of all. Especially in flash fiction. The point of hinting at a larger world within flash fiction is not to satiate readers, but to whet their appetites.
Bill Ward is, most probably, a figment of his own imagination. His flash has appeared at Every Day Fiction, Murky Depths, and the anthologies Dead Souls and Northern Haunts, as well as The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008. He blogs about all things genre at www.billwardwriter.com.