Good Things

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.

person in a box

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?

10 thoughts on “Good Things

  1. alisonwells

    I’m so delighted that you took up the 31 word challenge and how you describe the process is excellent, there are so many clever techniques used there to fill in a back story in a handful of words. I think flash fiction is terrific for honing our skills right down to say only exactly what needs to be said and not a single word more!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Oh, thank you! I’m so glad you took the time to have a read of my blog post, and to leave your comment. Thanks so much for setting up the #31haw hashtag, and for your Head Above Water blog, too. I found the competition really helpful, and I loved taking part. I’m delighted that you were impressed with my dissection of the technique I used to write my piece! 🙂

  2. Rand Howard

    Okay! Now you do have me fired up! Flash fiction is on my list for things to do in 2013 but wasn’t really sure how to go about it. The reason I started my Finn Bheara twitter account was to see if I could create a character 140 characters at a time and that has not really taken off, yet, but it will. I have been thinking lately that maybe the reason I hasn’t taken off is because it is the wrong character. Have written the NaNo novel around him, I found I struggled with giving him any real depth and he mainly sits in the corner most of the novel. So, he may fade away or change in some way.
    Anyway, I did try a short short story on the twitter the other day. I not sure you caught it or not. I would tweet about every 15 minutes or so. Here it is:

    There was something about the trees, they were seedlings when King Arthur was in battle against the Anglo-Saxon. Their mothers and fathers were siblings of the older bristle cone pine to the east and welcomed the first humans to the area. To think that Ri might be as old as that was hard to believe but the truth will be known soon.
    The summer was young and the chill quickly faded in the rising sun. The mist floated over the slow moving river next to the camp site. Then I saw her, the woman in the red cape! Was she floating on the river or was she standing on the opposite shore. She raised her arm and pointed off to the east. I turned to see where she was pointing and saw the silhouette of Mount Shasta with the sun behind. I turned back and the woman was gone.
    The girl was moving around in the tent. I knew where our journey would take us next.

    i changed it a little for the twitter feed so it would break better at each tweet. I was trying to keep in mind a story arc for each tweet. I think it would be a good exercise for my writing to be able to do that, deliver in a short burst, like you have said in your post.

    I am working on a 500 word challenge story that I will probably finish later today or tomorrow. Right now, I am kind of stuck trying to figure out the mystery to be solved. The opening line is:

    “In each of us a different part of the mystery becomes luminous.”, P95, Anam Cara by John O’Donohue.

    I loved your 31 words and grateful you discussed the process you went through to create it. Like I said, it has me fired up to start working on flash fiction.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Hi Rand – I missed your Twitter story yesterday, but thanks for copying it out here. I really like it! It’s very mysterious, and I like the sense of forward impetus contained in the last line. I’m really happy to know my blog posts have inspired you to try flash fiction – I’m only a newbie at it myself, so I’m quite enthusiastic; you may have noticed! 🙂

      I’m looking forward to reading your 500 word piece, particularly because I think the starter line you’ve chosen is a challenging one. Good luck with it!

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      If there was a ‘Comment of the Year Award’, you’d have my nomination. I hope you picked your sandwich up again once you’d finished typing, and that it was good. Thanks!


  3. Kate

    As I write so slowly, I find that I never have enough words. My writing began with poetry and in many ways it *is* writing a story with few words. My favourite flash fiction is Hemingway:

    For Sale, baby shoes, never worn.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I love that story by Hemingway, too – it’s a perfect example of what I was talking about in the blog post. He creates a past, hints at a future and encapsulates the sadness of the pivotal moment in someone’s life using just six words. I’ve never seen it bettered!

  4. anna3101

    31 words, wow! I’m impressed. I also always find it so hard to squeeze into the given amount of words or even into “please don’t use more than 1 A4 sheet, thank you” 🙂 Looks like an excellent exercise.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      It really is – it’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever done, I think. I’m like you – I use so many words, and it’s a real problem! Learning how to be concise is very important. Plus, it really helps your creative mind. It sounds odd – putting barriers on yourself can make you more creative? – but it really works. I hope you try it. If you do, let me know how you get on!


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