We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Good Things Come in Small Packages’. I’ve often used it in self-defence, as I’m quite short and also, for some crazy reason, married to a very tall person. I thought it was just a saying, without any real meaning, and I certainly never really thought it could apply to my writing, but – guess what? – it does. It really does. Over the last few days, I’ve been challenging myself to write to strict word-counts. My last blog restricted me to 500 words, but I also wrote a short story in 100 words yesterday, and then took the idea a bit further and posted an entry to another competition which limited the word count to 31. Yes – thirty-one words! It’s hard to imagine writing a story in such a constrained space, but I’ve discovered it is possible – and not only possible, but liberating.
Normally, my writing suffers from an excess of words. When I was at university, it happened several times that my grade was dropped because I exceeded the word count for my written work. My tutors used to beg me to rein it in, this need I had to use every word in the dictionary when – really – I could have said what I wanted to say in a much more compact way. I never believed them. I felt, very deeply, that I needed all these words, and I found it very hard to say things in a more concise way. Perhaps I felt that words were what I understood, and what I knew, which led me to use so many of them. Also, of course, I just loved words and I loved getting lost in writing – but the danger there, of course, is of really getting lost. Of using lots and lots of words, but not saying very much, or of writing yourself into a corner and realising you can’t finish the piece you’re working on. That has happened to me, so many times!
A story needs certain things to function, of course, and these rules apply to any story, no matter how long or short it is. It needs a narrative voice, and a character or characters. It needs an arc – i.e. a definable beginning, middle and end. It needs conflict or tension, it needs resolution. It needs drama, and normally it needs a crisis or turning point, wherein our narrator/protagonist/characters find themselves faced with a huge choice or decision, or forced into a dangerous or life-changing situation which will see their character strengths or weaknesses brought to the fore. So, how to do all this in (for example) thirty-one words? Well, this is what I did.
The competition (run by Alison Wells on her WordPress blog) used the words ‘The woods were silent, not even the twitter of a bird’, and we were asked to write a piece of ‘flash’ fiction (or short fiction), using either 31 words or 131 words based on the effect these words had on our imaginations – but not using those words exactly. I chose to use 31 words, and this is what I wrote:
“I dropped the gore-spattered rock. He wasn’t moving. Was it finally over? I tried to smile with a broken face, deafened by sudden silence. I spat at him, then stumbled away.”
In this tiny storylet, I did my best to create a narrative arc within the very constrained word count. My reasoning went something like this: By using the phrase ‘Was it finally over?’, the character creates a past – a shared past – with the person they have just killed. Clearly, to beat someone’s head in with a rock means their past has not been a happy one; also, the character tells us that their face is ‘broken’, meaning (perhaps?) that the dead person has hurt them. The fact that they stumble away at the end can be taken as a further indication that they’ve been hurt or attacked. I thought that by combining the character’s attempt to smile (in satisfaction? In relief?) and then showing them spitting at the dead character, I could express their anger and their deep hatred of one another. Of course, the story doesn’t tell us what their backstory is – we don’t know why they found themselves alone together, we don’t know what happened exactly to lead to this moment. That sort of detail is left up to the reader to provide, and as a reader I like that – I like being given the freedom to use my own imagination, too. I think that’s what flash fiction is all about – it’s very well named, because you’re describing a flash, or a pivotal moment, in the life of a character. The short word count is apt too, because these sort of moments, in real life as well as in fiction, don’t last very long; the roar of anger, the burst of hatred, the jolt of jealousy. These intense moments can be described very well using very few words.
If you’re stuck for inspiration, and you want to get your mind moving again, you could do worse than taking a phrase or an image out of the world around you and giving yourself 30 or 50 or 100 words to tell a story based on that phrase or image. It’s really difficult, but it gets your mind to focus with extreme clarity on the core of what a story is. Maybe, your flash fiction can become the heart of a longer story – perhaps it might be fleshed out into a longer piece, and you might find yourself with a novel on your hands. But, I think the beauty of flash fiction lies in just leaving it be, and allowing it to be what it is – something brilliant in a tiny package.
What do you think of what I managed to do in my 31 words – if you were to take up this challenge, what would you write?