Archive for the ‘Flash Fiction’ Category

How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

In a recent tweet, writer/editor Robert Swartwood made an interesting observation about character development in the new genres of short, short fiction. He mentioned a horror anthology seeking submissions for stories of 500 words or less. The anthology editors said that character development would be impossible in so few words. Robert Swartwood countered that character development is certainly possible in 500 words and that even hint fiction—a genre he himself created and with a word limit of 25—allows for character development. Of course, Robert Swartwood continued, we must all agree on the definition of “character development.”

I believe that character development is of two types, and both are possible in the 25 words of a piece of hint fiction. I also think character development of at least one type is possible in a shorter piece, although that will be the topic of a later post.

As I understand it, the term “character development” can refer both to 1) the action and descriptions that establish a character as realistic and three-dimensional and also to 2) the growth and change a character undergoes throughout the course of a story. The first type of character development is, perhaps, more static than the second. But in either case, the idea is to create a well-rounded and believable character.

In hint fiction, character development is severely limited by word count and by the fact that, by definition, hint fiction merely hints at character (as well as plot and conflict). Hint fiction can have a meaningful title (not included in the 25-word limit), which can be a big help in character development. As the following examples illustrate, character development of the first type—merely creating three-dimensionality and believability—does seem entirely possible in 25 words or less, although showing character might take away from creating plot. Character development of the second type—showing character change throughout a piece of fiction—might also be possible, although this character development relies heavily on plot.

The following piece of hint fiction shows character development of the first kind. Although we learn what Lucretia is like at the particular moment the story describes, she undergoes no change throughout the piece. The title contributes to characterization:

Bully

One tableful of drunken wedding guests sat together the entire night. Lucretia was among them, snickering.

“Hey, Dottie,” Lucretia called mockingly. “Come talk to us.”

In this particular example, one might argue that plot has given way to character development. In order to establish Lucretia as a bully, little happens in this story.

Character development of the second type is more difficult in a piece of hint fiction. In general, character change in hint fiction probably comes across through plot, rather than through a character’s emotions. The following shows plot-dependent character development. Once again, the title contributes:

Redemption

Dwight cocked his pistol and walked into the bank. He chose the youngest teller. A child waved at him. Dwight put the safety back on.

Developing character and showing character change are both possible in hint fiction. However, the first might tend to take the place of plot, and the second might tend to rely very heavily on plot.

Please read my next blog, in which I explore the possibility of character development in less than 25 words, and leave your comments about character development in short fiction. I would love to hear from you.

Learning from Hint Fiction

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Although Robert Swartwood’s new hint fiction anthology (W.W. Norton, 2010) is a compelling enough reason to write hint fiction, publication is not the only reason to write in this intriguing new genre. Crafting a successful piece of hint fiction is, in itself, an excellent writing exercise. By its very nature, hint fiction demands that its author select each word carefully and understand the pacing and timing inherent in a small collection of sentences.

Swartwood, who coined the term, defines “hint fiction” as a work of 25 words or less that suggests a larger story without telling it outright. Thus, as Swartwood says, a piece of hint fiction implies conflict and its potential outcome but does not have a traditional beginning, middle and end. Under Swartwood’s definition, hint fiction must have a title, which conveniently allows the author to convey more meaning outside the 25-word limit.

The following is an unedited piece of hint fiction. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

JURY DUTY

The women in the corner say that they think he looks innocent. I haven’t said anything, because I know how dangerous he really can be.

After editing, the piece reads as follows:

JURY DUTY

The woman in purple says, “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent.” I don’t say anything, because I saw him that morning with the knife.

Below is the piece with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

[This story is an effective piece of hint fiction, as it suggests a larger plot without telling it directly. A few changes in word choice can make better use of the 25-word limit and convey the suggested story more pointedly and dramatically.] The women in the cornerwoman in purple [Perhaps one woman would be just as effective as more than one. “In the corner” could normally be an effective descriptor, but with so few words available to convey the storyline, it seems that you could say something that more effectively differentiates the women from the male defendant about whom they are speaking.] says, that they think he looks innocent “He’s innocent. His eyes look innocent. [Dialogue is interesting here, and repeating the word “innocent” emphasizes the woman’s assessment. The repetition also serves to highlight the narrator’s own secret knowledge.] I haven’t said don’t say anything, [The past participle—“haven’t said”—introduces a confusing time element. It isn’t necessary for the narrator to indicate a time different from the one in which the woman is speaking.], because I know what he’s really like saw him that morning with the knife. [In a longer piece, “I know what he’s really like” could introduce a more in detailed discussion of the defendant’s true nature. However, this very short piece benefits from more precision.]

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this post. I would love to hear from you.

Interesting New Market for Short, Short Fiction

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Writers of the shortest of short fiction have an interesting new market for their brief works. In a recent blog, writer Robert Swartwood solicits submissions for a new W.W. Norton anthology of hint fiction.

Shorter and more mysterious than the traditional 1,000-words-or-less flash fiction, hint fiction has a maximum word length of 25. Unlike flash fiction, hint fiction merely suggests a larger story, rather than telling it outright. However, a piece of hint fiction still manages to encompass the overarching idea of a complete story.

Read Robert Swartwood’s blog for details about the online submission process and for helpful—and enviable—examples of hint fiction. The submission deadline is August 31, 2009.

Six-Sentence Stories

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Flash fiction lovers often cite a poignant six-word story, erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway, as the high point of the genre. The story reads, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Although Papa Hemingway might never have really written it, the mini-story is a perfect example of flash fiction that works. The six words encompass all of the conflict, emotion and tragedy of much longer stories, illustrating the potential of a well-honed piece of flash fiction.

Word limits for flash fiction can vary, depending on the print or online journal that publishes it, although most flash fiction has fewer than 1,000 words. Six Sentences, an intriguing flash fiction blog, sets a sentence limit, allowing authors to use as many words as they can pack into six meaningful sentences.

The following are two original, unedited flash fiction pieces that follow the Six Sentences guidelines. Below the unedited versions are my edits of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

First Story: The Mother

“You’re going to love having kids,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulders and blinking so hard that Phillip thought she might have gotten dirt in her eye. “Ever since I had my son, I’ve been like a different person; I just feel so maternal to all children, no matter whose they are.”

Phillip started to say something, but she continued.

“I mean, I just see a child, and I want to take it into my arms.”

Phillip said, “It?” but she seemed not to hear.

The maid’s child darted across the lawn, chasing a round, red ball; the ball hit the woman’s feet, and she kicked it aside, examining her fingernails.

Second Story: Studying

Patrick never studied for tests, and he hadn’t studied for this final either. Everyone else walked into the classroom with notes and outlines, frantically cramming every last minuscule piece of information into their head before the exam began. Patrick knew the one exam question would be about Moby Dick, because it always was, in Professor Boylston’s class, as everyone knew. At least Patrick had read Moby Dick and knew every plot and subplot inside and out. “But what if he doesn’t ask about it this time—this one time?” Charlie asked as he sat down next to Patrick and rippled through his notes. Patrick looked at the exam question—“Please describe the concept of intellectualism as it relates to Casaubon in Middlemarch“—and witnessed the end of his academic career.

Below are the two stories with my editing marks. I have not included the stories in their final forms, because their authors will need to make modifications outside my scope as editor. My comments to the authors are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

First Story: The Mother

“You’re going to love having kids,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulders and blinking so hard that Phillip thought she might have gotten dirt in her eye. [I’m not sure about the relevance of Phillip’s dirt-in-the-eye thought. It detracts from the main point of the story, something you might not want to do in so short a piece. Couldn’t Phillip have some other thought about her blinking? Perhaps she’s batting her eyes coquettishly? Or is she adjusting colored contact lenses? You clearly convey the idea that this woman is self-centered, so her gestures should relate to this important quality.]  “Ever since I had my son, I’ve been like a different person; I just feel so maternal to all children, no matter whose they are.”

Phillip started to say something, but she continued. [In a story with a six-sentence limit, you don’t want to waste a single one. This sentence does not serve to further the plot or deepen the characterization of Phillip or the woman. If you cut this sentence, you would have an extra sentence for the end of the story, where I think it might be more useful. See my comments, below.]

“I mean, I just see a child, and I want to take it into my arms.”

Phillip said, “It?” but she seemed not to hear. [This is a good sentence. You succinctly add much to the character of the woman.]

The maid’s child darted across the lawn, chasing a round, red ball; the ball hit the woman’s feet, and she kicked it aside, examining her fingernails. [As I explained above, you could profitably turn this last sentence into two separate ones, because you convey a great deal of information here. I like how quickly “maid’s child” describes a child whom this self-centered woman would consider beneath her regard.]

Second Story: Studying

Patrick never studied for tests, and he hadn’t studied for this final, either. Everyone else walked into the classroom with notes and outlines, frantically cramming every last minuscule piece of [The words “frantically” and “cramming” sufficiently convey the idea that these are small bits of last-minute information. The five words I cut are unnecessary.] information into their heads before the exam began. Patrick knew the one exam question would be about Moby Dick, because it always was, in Professor Boylston’s class, as everyone knew. [“It always was” indicates the idea that this fact is common knowledge.] At least Patrick had read Moby Dick and knew every plot and subplot inside and out [These words are also unnecessary. “Every plot and subplot” gets the idea across clearly.] “But what if he doesn’t ask about it this time—this one time?” Charlie asked as he sat down next to Patrick and rippffled through his notes. Patrick looked at the exam question [The time sequence is confusing here, because in the previous sentence, Charlie is still looking at his notes. How does Patrick so quickly have a test? Perhaps you could replace “as he sat down…through his notes” with something like “as Professor Boylston handed out the exam.”]—“Please describe the concept of intellectualism as it relates to Casaubon in Middlemarch“—and witnessed the end of his academic career. [I like this dramatic ending.]

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]