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How Does Flash Fiction (or Any Fiction) Actually Work?

I'm re-issuing this small blog item, written many, many months ago, because it contains some important truths and also because right now I am receiving many flash fiction stories for the Great Clarendon House Writing Challenge, about which you can read more in the latest Inner Circle Writers' Group Magazine. (Deadline April 5th, by the way!) Many of these stories are fabulous -- but some show a need to grasp the basics of flash fiction, and perhaps of storytelling in general. So this might help:

What’s the difference between a story and the simple relation of an incident?

I ask because I get to read quite a lot of ‘flash fiction’ in the course of a week or so. ‘Flash fiction’ is defined as a fictional work of extreme brevity that still offers character and plot development. And that definition really holds the answer to the question.

Much of what is presented to me as flash fiction is the relation in words of an event. Sometimes that event is dramatic, sometimes emotionally tense; sometimes it is simply a piece of description, following a character around a scene, usually a portion of landscape. Quite often, ‘nothing happens’: the writing might be tight, passionate, intense, controlled, regular or any number of things, but there is no ‘development’. ‘Develop’ means to grow or cause to grow and become more mature, advanced, or elaborate; it can also mean to construct or convert, and, in music, to elaborate by modification of the melody, harmony, or rhythm.

A scene which outlines the disappearance of someone may be gripping in the way it describes the emotional impact, the way the scene is perceived, even the interaction of characters, but if nothing develops then the piece falls flat and reads like an excerpt.

Readers like change, growth, movement; they are not satisfied with action as action alone, they want it to lead somewhere. When we say readers like to be ‘moved’, we mean emotionally — but emotional ‘movement’ parallels physical movement: we want to go somewhere.

Where exactly?

That’s an interesting question. Broadly speaking, and not to put things too simplistically, we want to go either up or down: we want to be uplifted or driven inward; we want to see something that we weren’t expecting, something that makes us think, laugh, shiver or weep. What leaves us unsatisfied is to simply have something related to us — unless it results in a shift of some kind.

What kinds of shift?

Perhaps surprisingly, there are a certain number of these shifts, just as there are a limited number of chords in music. How those shifts are put together, though, can create a virtually unlimited variety of musics.

The shifts are movements up and down the scale from a hypothetical ‘top’ to an imaginary ‘bottom’. At the top, we can postulate an absolute release or transcendence of some kind, the ultimate enlightenment; at the bottom is the opposite, a total nightmare of entrapment, blindness and darkness. Stories move either one way or the other — some great stories move both ways at the same time — but they all move. How that movement is demonstrated is through characters and what we call ‘character development’. In many writing guides, this is an abstract term, not well explained: characters are just supposed to ‘develop’ or ‘mature’. But actually character development is almost a science once you understand what is going in in stories and how they really work.

In brief, what an author should aim at, particularly in flash fiction where there isn’t much room to achieve it by definition, is movement: readers must be shifted on one way or another. They must be caught off-guard, perhaps, or surprised, or jolted (in a good way).

You can write the most amazingly descriptive or emotionally gripping piece without accomplishing much movement.

Aim to move.


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