by Joe Kapitan

Once in a while, I read a piece of flash fiction that really sticks with me. Scott Garson’s “Hourly,”  published online recently by Matter Press along with five other short fictions, is one of those stories, and it makes a great case study for the importance of word choice.

HOURLY by Scott Garson

They gave me a job at Halloween Town. Strip mall with vacancies. Sad. I was a wizard, vaguely swinging my wand. “Everything change,” I commanded.

This sophisticated and powerful story is only twenty-five words long, so each and every word carries four percent of the load. There’s no room for fluff or filler; each word has to have forethought, and a solid reason to remain there after the editing.

The first two words fascinate me—“They gave.”

First thought—why “They”? Third person plural is so detached and unfamiliar. Note that it’s not Uncle Johnny or the nice lady next door or any of the known persons that would usually help one locate a job. The reason for that detachment doesn’t become evident until later. And “gave”? The passive voice speaks volumes. The character didn’t “find” a job, “land” a job, or even “get” a job. No active voice verb here. The job was given, almost as if the character wasn’t seeking it and only reluctantly accepted.

I love how one word can paint a whole scene. Look at the word “vacancies.”  When I read it, I immediately picture a tired Midwestern city, its industries shuttered, its workers gone, streets of homes still up for sale, Halloween Town one of the few teeth remaining in the darkened, gaping frown of the beleaguered strip mall. So much mileage from that single word!

Most writers know that verbs are the engines, nouns are structural, and adjectives add layers, but adverbs rarely get any love. In Scott’s story, “vaguely” is a hero and does far more than its share. A different character in a different story may have swung the wand “fiercely,” “determinedly,” “hopefully.” Instead, our character goes through the motions. It’s such a portrait of resignation and defeat. Didn’t the Harry Potter series teach us that nothing good comes of half-hearted spell-casting? Without conviction, nothing will change in Scott’s unnamed town—not the “they,” not the “vacancies,” and certainly not the “vaguely-lived” lives of the people that are left behind.

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Joe Kapitan writes from a brick house surrounded by pines, southwest of Cleveland. From there, troublesome stories have escaped out onto the internet or into print. Like these: A Late Winter’s Conversation and “Art is Dead.”