Friday, March 18, 2011

Story Notes: My Own Darker Microfiction

(This is the last of the Story Notes from this weekend's posting of three microfiction stories.)

So I finally get to tell you about the writing of my own story "You Kids Get Off My Lawn!" (If you want to avoid spoilers, go back and read it -- it's microfiction, so it's super short.)

I started with a basic idea-generation exercise. The theme was "Spring Break" and it wasn't long before I wrote down the phrase "You kids get off my lawn!" I realized right away that all the conflict and tension I could possibly need were built into that. But since I was looking to write microfiction (a story of less than 500 words) I knew that it would end up a twist or revelation story.

Revelation stories are the most common story I find in the microfiction world, and, unfortunately, I find they tend to be very weak. Partly because they rely so much on that surprise ending. Of course, there isn't room for much more in a micro-story, and twist endings work well in jokes.... But I notice that, unlike a joke, many writers of microfiction tend to neglect the setup, and put their effort into hiding the twist.

I'll be honest here -- microfiction is no place for mystification. There isn't time for the audience to think the story through. At best, they'll think it through after reading, as with the Hemingway story. But a microfiction story is so short, we've barely started to think before you reveal the ending. That's not very satisfying.

The worst of this kind of story doesn't even try to mystify. In going for the gotcha, the writer writes something boring and ordinary. Like an all dialog story between two parents talking about their kid's grades, until it is revealed that they're really six-armed shark-toothed aliens who eat the head of the teacher in a single gulp. (Hint: if the point of the story is that these aliens otherwise act like regular parents LET US IN ON IT!!!! Then we can either we can laugh at the joke or get tense at the horrible possibilities. Otherwise there is no tension to release. There is only surprise and that's nothing.)


I knew that for this story to work for me, the tension had to come from the situation up front -- from what the audience knows and expects. It can't come from will be revealed, because the audience doesn't know that yet. At best it comes from the clues that lead them to guess.

I also decided that the core of the story is not the violence. So often dark microfiction takes the easy way out and ends with "... and then he chopped them to little bits." It's flat and it's obvious and it doesn't do the job, unless yo have a long and detailed set up to justify it.

Since I am not a fan of horror, I didn't want to do a long and detailed set up to an act of violence. I decided instead that I wanted to deal with the psychology -- the aftermath. I wanted to consider the humanity of the characters.

So, in some ways, this story is a light horror version of the Duck Joke. The old man, like the bartender, didn't handle the situation well. The ghosts are like the duck -- not malevolent, but persistent. And in the horror-logic of the story, the old man had to finally consider what they wanted.

So the twist isn't that there is an act of violence, but rather that an act of violence already happened. So the violence, isn't the end, but the beginning. And I wanted to highlight that even more, so the revelation itself is not the end of the story. It's just the climax, which sets up the ending.

I wasn't sure I would like this story. I don't like horror fiction, and I'm often frustrated by how flash fiction lends itself so easily to dark, and even ghoulish stories. But the plain fact is that it's easier to have an impact in so few words when we go for the more extreme. And maybe that's what makes me more uncomfortable. I love Alfred Hitchcock, so it isn't darkness that I really dislike. I'm a mystery writer, so I quite naturally write crime stories. I just want to see more character. I want a chance to identify with someone, even if it's a bartender or a stubborn duck.

I've been worried about this. I like to write short short fiction, but I want it to fit the tone (and audience) of my other work. Yes, I want to experiment. That's why I wrote this one, as a hack, to fulfill what I saw as a genre requirement for a twist ending.

But what I learned is that you always tend to flavor your stories with elements of you. This one wasn't exactly a joke, but it ended up about the characters, and was compassionate to all of them. They say that O. Henry wrote a story a day to publish in the newspapers for years. Maybe my prejudice that microfiction lends itself to literary or horror is formed simply because that's all I tend to see other writers write these days in it.

Well, whatever it ends up, you're going to see more of it from me.

I also want to see more of it from you, and that is why tomorrow I will announce my first Daring Microfiction Story Contest -- complete with a prize (an Amazon gift certificate). The full rules to come tomorrow - the deadline will be around April 30, and you will have to publish it on your own site or blog.


(In the meantime, you can read more of my short fiction in Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup! Five Short Mysteries, available as an ebook from Amazon, Amazon UK, Smashwords and other ebook retailers. 99 cents! Such a deal.)

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