Over the past couple of years, I’ve provided feedback and line edits on over a thousand short-fiction pieces from microfiction to novelettes and everything in between, and in considering each of these stories I’ve noticed various trends in the comments I provide, things that crop up time and again from one writer to the next. So, I thought it might be a useful exercise to record some of these common issues on my blog.
Before I dig in, something I always try and make clear in my feedback is that almost all opinions about writing, story structure, characterisation, even the nitty-gritty of words and sentences are subjective. There is often no right or wrong. So, please take what follows in that vein. They are things that have jumped out at me as I’ve read these stories, things that might be useful notes to others as they come to plan a new piece or look at a story in editing mode.
When I started jotting down thoughts about this blog post, it quickly became apparent that I had enough for a whole series of posts so I’ll be popping these up sporadically throughout the next few months. This month I’m starting with structure and how the story is told.
Let’s begin with beginnings. I wrote a whole blog post on this a couple of months ago. The opening lines of a piece of short fiction demand a lot of a writer – intrigue, setting, character, tone of voice – and with so much to cram in, things can understandably go a little awry, disorientating a reader rather than making them feel at home. I think a story’s first few sentences should be viewed as an invitation. We are saying to our reader, “Come in. Take a look around.” We want them to feel welcome in this world we’ve created for them. Remember to tell them where they are, in whose company they are going to be spending time, give the reader a couple of details that bring the world and characters to life. Perhaps, you might scream in response that, “My intention is to unsettle my reader!” – but I think there’s a difference between unsettling (a glint of intrigue that puts a reader on edge) and baffling (where the reader doesn’t have anything concrete to hold on to). Often, a simple opening can be the most effective. I taught a workshop at the weekend where we looked at Inheritance (Grace Q. Song | Smokelong Quarterly). The first sentence is “All day I’ve been angry in upstate New York.” Simple, effective, and inviting the reader in. It is short, doesn’t demand too much of the reader and straight away, we know who, what, where, when, tone etc.
One question that I seem to ask quite a lot is whether a story is as focused as it could be. A piece of short fiction takes up such a small amount of space that it doesn’t usually have room for the subplots and extraneous details that you’d find in the typical novel. Often, there is only space for one strand of narrative. Other things might happen around it but they generally need to serve a purpose in taking that main narrative strand from A to B. When a story feels like it is lacking focus, I think a good thing to do is to write a synopsis. What specifically is your story about? Last year, I had a story published in New Flash Fiction Review called Black Annis. This is the synopsis I wrote for that piece: “When the rumours about Annis mushroom to the point where she is suspected of killing children, a woodcutter sets out to kill her.” Prior to writing that synopsis, I had many, MANY more elements in the story – I’d done a lot of research and I wanted to include her love affair with a giant called Bel, how she was a goddess responsible for bringing the winter. However, this was far too much for a 500-word flash. The piece needed to be distilled into one single narrative thread. When it comes to writing synopses, I find that the “WHEN A, THEN B” structure of my above example works well. Often stories are things that happen which have been triggered by something else. In going with “WHEN A, THEN B” we are forced to consider the beginning, the inciting incident, the wibbly-wobbly stuff that happens in the middle as well as the end – it should, hopefully, help focus you on what specifically your story is about. Perhaps this synopsis is something you write before anything else or perhaps it is something you write before the editing stage so you can get a sense of what might need to be cut.
In short fiction, especially flash fiction, the writer is often performing a magic trick. The essence of a whole life, a whole world can be conjured in just a few hundred words. Concision is key. But one thing I come across quite often is the issue of too much story having been crammed into too tight a space (the opposite is also problematic – not enough story for the word count – but, in my experience, especially with flash, it is far more common for a writer to cram in too much than too little). I’d suggest we need to think of a story as a set of jewels. We should want to show them off in all their glory – in a display case rather than crowbarred into a too-small cardboard box. Often when there is too much story for the word count, a writer will end up cutting things that bring their writing to life – specific description (things that tell us about character, place, situation), those sensory details (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), lyrical elements that underpin emotional resonance (imagery, repeated motifs) – diluting the story's power in the process. For me, a certain amount of space is needed for each individual story and when making cuts to reach a particular word count, I think we need to bear that in mind. Does this story fit within this box? Do I need to allow myself a longer word count? Or do I need to make the story itself smaller, focus in more keenly in one particular moment in time? Part of the trick in short fiction is making use of white space, leaving elements as implied. We can have three or four key scenes described in detail that are spread apart in time without the need for any explanation of what happens in between. I really like how this is handled in Patterns (Rick White | Reflex Fiction;, each segment is a microcosm, a tiny scene; each inter-paragraph gap invites a reader to fill in the time that has lapsed between this new scene and the one before.
Painting in Specific Scenes
Another feedback comment I find myself making quite a lot is about whether a story could be shifted from the general to the specific. What I mean by “general” and “specific” is perhaps best explained with an example. At the start of Casey, Who Exorcises People (Eric Rasmussen | Okay Donkey), the first two paragraphs are painted in quite general terms. These are things that tell us who Casey is but they don’t necessarily belong to a specific scene. However, after that, everything happens on this “one morning”, the scene unfolds in description and dialogue and detail. We, as readers, are invited to live this moment alongside the characters – and I would suggest our engagement with it is enhanced as a result. I think using splashes of general description can be a really useful tool for adding context and quickly getting a reader up-to-speed with things they need to know, especially when it is done in the way it is in this story – it may be “general” in terms of not belonging to a particular scene but it is also “specific” (how he yells “occupado”, the “heavy velour drapes” etc.) The fact it is smouldering with humour adds an extra dimension. But I would suggest that most stories work best when they unfold in specific scenes where we can follow the action in real time. If adding in general description, I think it comes down to figuring out how much is too much, finding that point of balance…
Finally, a note about balance. This is tricky and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all approach. Different stories have different demands, different structures, different elements at play. However, I often make feedback comments about balance. Things that crop up a lot:
Too much word count dedicated to the beginning of a story, not enough on the end (or vice versa – remember the adage “arrive late, leave early”)
Not enough space for the key moments in a story (the moments of change, of emotional climax)
Too much backstory against the amount of time spent in the present moment
Where two narrative strands have been braided together, an unbalance between the two
Where two elements are in tension (good vs evil, light vs dark, happy vs sad, one character vs another character, one possibility vs another possibility), an unbalance between the two
I find a good thing with balance is to print your story and take out your highlighter pens. If you have past and present interwoven, use a yellow highlighter for the past and a pink one for the present. Once you’ve done your highlighting, you should hopefully have a better idea of the balance between the two. The same thing can be done with the various stages of your story – decide what constitutes beginning, middle and end, and count up the words for each segment. Generally, I would suggest that in short fiction, the majority of your word count wants to be dedicated to the middle of your story – that’s the interesting bit where things change, but also don’t skimp on the ending and give enough at the start that your reader feels invited in!
Hopefully, there’s some useful thoughts above, a chance to reflect on your own stories-in-progress but also a chance to remember that we’re all as writers in the same boat, or least, we’re all bobbing about on the same choppy waters. These issues crop up time and again because writing short fiction is a hard thing to do. We’re spinning lots of plates (sorry, now I'm mixing my metaphors) and it's difficult to get all the plates spinning exactly how we want them to spin in every piece (especially if we're also trying to steer a ship across the sea!) But I think the more we can build up a list of common stumbling blocks and have these as a reference point, the closer we can get to that scenario where all the plates are spinning in harmony and it is plain sailing, full speed ahead.
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