Fri 22 Mar 2013
Talking about a story of fewer than 1000, or 500, or 300 words, means by nature talking about restraint.
I am a firm believer in the idea that limits increase creativity rather than restrict it. Perhaps this is what attracts me to the very short form: flash fiction or prose poetry or sudden fiction or whatever you want to call it. When I am working on a flash project, I like to give myself restraints. I wrote my chapbook, Our Island of Epidemics, by trying to write in first-person plural, which I had never done before. The epidemics themselves were restrictions, as I fit the stories to the rules of diseases like unrequited love or unstoppably growing hearts or memory loss.
My new book is a novel in flash fiction, made up of 115 mini-chapters, called I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. I wrote it with the following restraints: each chapter could not be longer than a page, each chapter had to include an object chosen at random beforehand, and each sentence should try to include a “turn.” I kept these rules loosely. I considered a “turn” the point where a sentence reveals something new, or moves the story in a new direction, or flips something earlier in the sentence on its head.
For example, a sentence might begin with a man unsure whether the boy beside him is his biological son, and end with the man feeling sympathy for the boy’s understanding of the ocean. That is a turn in a very short story, to me. When I was working on the novel at length, I would write a chapter or two each day, giving myself objects from around the house to work with: a bed, a glove, a hairband, a book jacket, a dinosaur toy. Sometimes these objects made it into the final drafts, and sometimes not.
In one of my many attempts to make ends meet, I teach a flash fiction course in which I have students write a story a week based on prompts. I often tell them that one thing a story does not make, but two or three things a story can make—part of the movement of a very short story is the connection drawn between seemingly disparate objects or characters: a father, a boy, the ocean, dead starfish. If we connect dots that appear at odds, we’re moving the reader from one place or idea to another across a large metaphysical space: we’re creating or at least indicating that there is an arc, an underlying shape.
I read about a study once in which people were forced to look at a drawing that had been left unfinished; they wanted more than anything to complete it. As long as the reader can see that there is somewhere to go, he will fill in the missing path.
I give my students prompts each week that often involve leaving much of the story out: write a list that reveals a character, write a story composed entirely of facts, write a scene with a MacGuffin—an object that is never revealed to the reader. The second prompt, the story made of facts, gets especially interesting results. The example story I give was published in NANO Fiction: “On Stammering,” in which the narrator states a number of facts about stammering that slowly expose his personal relation to those facts. The students who stick closely to the prompt learn the most from it: writing only one type of sentence makes them think harder about how to create a story between the lines. I save this prompt for a certain point in the course, when I think that they are ready for that struggle.
Talking about a story of fewer than 1000, or 500, or 300 words, means by nature talking about restraint. Restraint must be exercised in the diction, the imagery, the characterization, the plot. Everything needs to work on multiple levels. Everything needs to be important. This is usually why students resist the restraints, at first. They think they need more freedom, more tools, in order to be precise. But it is the scene in a movie where the spy is locked up that we learn what kind of hero he is. Is he a planner; is he an improviser; is he a traitor? We must have at hand more than a simple trick to get us out; the best escape is more than an escape, it’s an adaptation. You only have one leg and there is a wide sea to swim across and no food except endless fish? That is when you find your story has always been a mermaid.
Matthew Salesses is a staff/faculty assistant at Harvard Kennedy School of Government working for the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy and a widely published young author. He also writes a column for the new online magazine The Good Men Project about being a new father. His novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is divided into small, easily digestible bits of flash fiction.