Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Essence of a Story - Micro and Flash Fiction, part 1

I wrote a couple days ago about short fiction, and in the comments Tim King mentioned his frustration with flash vignettes - and how story has to have some kind of change in it.

"Something must change" is a good working definition of the minimum it takes to make a story. (I have a slightly different definition, which I'll get to later.) Tim got the change from Holly Lisle. I learned it from an instructor in college. He was a poet, and so he often had to deal with the more literary end of fiction, and that was pretty much his definition of what makes a story a story. Something has to change.

Now, he was open to idea that what changes is that options are taken away -- for instance, a story about someone who never tried to do anything different, tries one day and fails, and goes back to the old routine. In such a story it might seem like nothing had changed, but in reality, everything can change in a story like that. A person who never tried to change has the possibility that some day she might. After she tries and fails, though, that rut she's in is no longer a rut or a routine -- it's a prison.

The problem with such stories is that they are super ordinary. Every creative writing class is full of them, because they are so easy to write. They are a terrible cliche. At best, this story line can work well as a subtext to something more interesting. Hard-boiled mysteries, and the grittier type of men's action are often about this -- and they make a better point of it than most literary short stories, because the people who don't change often go through extreme situations which should change them, so when it doesn't, you really believe they can't. A little literary story about someone who tries to change their routine in a small way and doesn't manage it doesn't feel like it's really about anything, because their routine was never really challenged.

Little things, of course, can be made big by detail. I rememember a story in college (don't remember who wrote it) from the 1930s about an uptight spinster who is driving along the highway in California, and she picks up a hitchhiker - a virile young man. The kid makes a pass at her, and when she responds with horror he backs off, embarrassed and very sorry. He points out a fruit truck ahead, and he says he knows that driver will give him a ride, so she can drop him off. Before she can start up again, the kid comes back and offers her a ripe melon, and then dashes away. If I remember right, the story ends with her driving away, sobbing.

This story was not about the fact that this woman can never change. As a matter of fact, I think she did change. No, she's not going to go gallivanting around with nubile young men. The change was revealed in the details of the story. We had a picture of a woman who was sure of herself. Who had control of her life, and who felt she was adventurous. She wasn't afraid to go driving alone across the country. The encounter with the young man showed her that she wasn't as adventurous as she thought. She had not tasted of the fruit of life, really. And furthermore it was now clear that her self-confidence and assurance wasn't because she was brave enough to taste life, but because she had shielded herself from life.

At the time I didn't really understand this story. Our instructor, Mr. Manion, was a grumpy guy, an ex-priest, a very interesting fellow - and not nearly as laid back and flexible as the poet instructor I had later. When Manion asked the students to comment on the story, and we all sat quietly and mumbled things, he finally just shouted at the whole class:


To which the twenty or so midwestern college freshmen all gasped in shock, rather like the spinster in the story.

After all these years, though, I think that the story wasn't about sex, it was about what happened in that classroom -- it was about being shocked about sex, even though we all knew what was going on in the story, and all thought of ourselves as sophisticated grown ups. This woman's life would not have been made better if she slept with every young farm hand who offered her a ripe melon. Her life would have been better if she -- someone who valued living a free and full life -- had been able to deal with the fact that a young man would make a pass at her.

Her tragedy was the revelation that she wasn't who she thought she was. At the end of the story we don't know if she will stop being adventurous or if she will suck it up and learn to deal with life for real. So in this case, the story wasn't about a change... yet. But it still worked as a story, because it raised a question -- what would happen if this "adventurous" woman got pushed outside her comfort zone? -- it answered that question.

A lot of very short fiction -- especially micro-fiction (under 500 words) is based on revelation. Which isn't exactly my definition of a story either. My definition is that a story creates tension and then releases it. It's the release that completes the story, and that release may be a number of things, though usually it's change or revelation.

I'll talk about that next.

But first, I haven't decided what to post for Sample Sunday. I might do a micro-fiction story. If so, it will be a twist story and not as deep as the spinster driving through the tawny hills of California, but it might make for some discussion points.

Next Post in series: Three Tiny Stories


DavidRM said...

Cool post.

I look at short short and flash fiction this way: A decision is made.

That's akin to "there is a revelation", but with less temptation to go for the suprise ending. I've learned to despise the surprise ending in flash fiction. It's usually telegraphed so obviously. Or, worse, in an effort to conceal the revelation/surprise, they make the opening of the story so *boring* that I don't bother reading the other 200 words or so. Or I just skip to the end. I remember one flash fiction story where it would have actually been a good, interesting little 300 words if the writer had let go of the surprise ending and literally reversed the order of the paragraps (last to first, second-last to second, etc).

I like your "create tension then release it". That covers a multitude of possibilities: decisions, revelations, steps on a journey, whatever.


The Daring Novelist said...

Create tension an release it explains the appeal of jokes.

I like your "decision is made" -- that's good for the story I will post tonight, actually.