by Julie Duffy
Over the next few months Flash Fiction Chronicles will be taking an in-depth look at Genre. Each month we’ll define one of the most popular genres and its related sub-genres, with input from writers and editors in that field.
Before we start however, I talked to authors and editors working in Romance, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and asked them if genre matters and why. Then we talked about the things that, regardless of genre, make a flash fiction piece successful.
Does Genre Matter?
“Friendships have been forged and broken over the question ‘What is science fiction?’”
Ask any writer “What do you write?” and watch their eyes narrow as they try to define exactly what it is that they do.
The genre question is difficult because humans — and the stories we tell — are complicated. Researcher Pavel Frelik explains,
“Any text — whether genre or mainstream — will inevitably inhabit more than one and usually multiple generic territories.”
So why do publications and bookstores insist on requiring stories to fit into one genre or another?
The quick answer is: audience.
“The advantage of writing in one genre is that an author can build a reader base that is dependable,” says Kat de Falla, publisher of Romance Flash, a site dedicated to a single genre. “Harlequin is a great example of using a formula that works, that brings readers back again and again to the same kind of story.”
Faith Brougham, writer and Fantasy flash fiction editor, agrees.
“Know your audience,” she says, adding that this is crucial to the success of your story in the marketplace.
Understanding readers’ expectations is key to placing your work in the right publications, or in the places where your readers hang out. Remember, genre classifications are less about defining your work and more about helping readers to find the kind of stories they enjoy.
Finding Common Ground
Short-short fiction is often discussed in language familiar to comedy writers: timing, the wind-up, the punchline.
Comedian Bob Newhart made his name with a stand-up routine based on one-sided telephone calls. In a recent interview, Newhart said,
“That applause at the end of the routine? The people are actually applauding themselves. What I’m saying is not necessarily funny; it’s what you don’t hear that’s funny — and the audience supplies that.”
Flash fiction, in its brevity, is like a one-sided conversation where the reader supplies the information the writer can only hint at.
Newhart explains why this relationship between the storyteller and the audience works.
“It presumes a certain intelligence in the listener and I think they appreciate that.”
Writing about flash fiction, S. Joan Popek points out that
“The writer must depend on the readers’ experiences to fill in the gaps.”
Understanding genre is one of the ways you can find an audience that shares your interests, experiences and the imagery you need to use to compress your story into the flash fiction form.
Of course, if we’re going to talk about genre there is a question we need to address: does the definition of ‘a good story’ change between genres?
Mark Budman, publisher of the longest-running online ‘zine for Flash Fiction, Vestal Review, doesn’t think so.
“We don’t pay attention to a genre. If it works, it works…I don’t want to impede the writer’s creativity, and I want to give the reader a variety of experience.”
In talking to many genre experts for this series, I discovered several themes running through all their advice.
Regardless of genre, all the experts agreed that what readers (and editors) crave most is a connection with the characters.
“Emotion, emotion, emotion,” says Kat de Falla, when asked what makes romantic flash fiction work.
For Linda Nagata, too, it goes beyond simple mechanical writing skills.
“A great story from any genre needs to be well-written and emotionally gripping with interesting, well-drawn characters.”
Vestal Review‘s Mark Budman looks for that connection with the reader in a slightly different form.
“Energy. The high level of energy that sustains the story. It’s like short distance running.”
(Notice how no-one stressed ‘good grammar’, or ‘original ideas’ or even ‘sticking perfectly to the word count’ when defining a successful flash fiction story?)
Faith Brougham has some great cross-genre advice for flash writers. Since there is little room for world-building in her favorite genre, fantasy, Brougham says,
“Only describe what’s different and what matters. Everything else is filler. Leave it out.”
So much for ‘what not to say’. How do we keep short-short stories from becoming dry lists of ‘things that happen’? In her classic essay on Flash Fiction, Camille Renshaw says,
“In a short space some thread must hold the story together. A recurring image can always do this.”
Write A Great Ending
With so few words, how are we supposed to end stories? We’ll explore this more in our genre series, but the cross-genre advice was clear. Whether you choose a twist ending, to end on a declaration or a piece of dialogue or a poignant image, the most important thing, summed up by Mark Budman of Vestal Review, is to stop when you have
“delivered the punch and run out of breath.”
And on that note, see you next month for the first of our in-depth looks at different genres.
Julie Duffy writes short fiction and is the host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay.org.