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.
This month I’m focusing on the idea of originality. ‘Unique’ is a word I type pretty often in my structural reviews, pointing out those things that make a story sing but also the areas where I feel it might be worth pushing to find something fresh – ‘what makes this story unique?’ ‘What makes this character unique?’ ‘Are there chances to make more of your unique tone of voice?’
Standing out from the crowd
One of the big problems for us writers in the 21st century is that we find ourselves among a chorus (sometimes, a cacophony) of voices. Not just jostling for attention with all the other writers who are writing right now but also with all the writers who have ever written in the past. Most stories have already been told multiple times and it can be hard to be truly original. But we should at least try. What makes our particular piece of flash fiction different to all the other pieces of flash fiction that have ever been written? What makes our short story unique?
The most obvious way of finding originality is to step into the surreal. What is life like trapped inside a vending machine, for example? Infinity Paradise Oblivion Cubicle (Matthew Burnside | Trampset) sets off to find out. Or how about an abstract concept as a character study as we see in Silence (Michael Battisto | Moonpark Review). Of course, these stories are not just surreal. They are holding a mirror up to the world, exploring the essence of being human through that original premise. And I think that is often the key. We can throw in all the talking piranhas and dancing top hats that we want to and sometimes that is the entire point of the story. But if our intent is something more resonant and meaningful, then we need to use that outlandish idea to ask our reader a question or to make them ponder the world in some way. What is the story beneath the story? Are there enough signposts for a reader to figure that out?
Dealing with common themes
Adding in elements of the unexpected can be especially useful when tackling themes that crop up more often, themes such as love / relationships or loss / grief. These themes are cornerstones of our lives, so it isn’t surprising that we tend towards writing stories about them, but with so many pieces being written on these themes, finding the unique is even more important. It is often about finding that new angle, finding a new way into the narrative like in Precipice (Jiksun Cheung | Molotov Cocktail) where a reader is slowly unsettled towards that gut-punch ending. On relationships, consider the original angle in Codes to Live By (Jude Higgins | New Flash Fiction Review) where beneath the story’s premise of a couple communicating in semaphore, the story itself is wonderfully universal. Imagine how much less memorable these pieces would have been if those unusual elements had been taken away – the story would still work, but there wouldn’t be that glint of gold that makes this exploration of grief or this exploration of a relationship different to all those other stories that have been told before.
Uniqueness of situation and character
Often, the originality of a story hinges on uniqueness of character and situation. Another theme that comes up a lot in short fiction is that of mental health struggles. Again, it is a common thread that many of us have to deal with in our day-to-day lives, and writing about it can be cathartic – the possibility of pushing negative thoughts from mind to page. But in terms of finding originality of story, that can be hard. In Dark / Matter (Gaynor Jones | Reflex Press), there is a wonderful juxtaposition between the opening magic show and the later scene in the bathroom, and this perhaps provides a nice idea that can be applied to any story – can the narrative be transplanted into a different setting to give it that sense of originality it may otherwise have been missing? In this piece there is also a seamless thematic thread of space and stars which delves us from the general to the achingly specific, a sense of this central character as a fully formed human-being rather than a two-dimensional stick figure.
I’ve prattled on before about the difficulties of conjuring unique characters within the constraints of a piece of flash (there’s not much space; it’s about choosing cornerstone details and trusting your reader to fill in the rest) and often it is about honing in on the unexpected. So, if we’re introducing the Virgin Mary into a story, throwing in a detail about how she wears “a pair of Sketchers GOWalk Arch Fits in light maroon” (great specificity!) and “double-knots the laces” should hopefully make a reader sit up and take notice. These quotes are from Tollbooth Madonna (Kayla Rutledge | Fractured Lit) which is wonderfully original from start to finish and one of my favourite pieces from the year so far. Another favourite from earlier this year is the brilliantly-titled Asshole Dolphin (Jeremy Glazer | Oxford Flash Fiction) – again, an original character, this unexpected pairing of “asshole” and “dolphin” when our general perception of dolphins is as friendly, inquisitive creatures. There is a whole world of originality in this idea of subverting reader expectations.
One of the most obvious ways of making a piece truly original is to lean into originality of form. We could write a story as a list or as a crossword puzzle or as a maths problem or using receipts as subtitles. I really like the audacity of 911, What’s Your Emergency? (James Montgomery | Maudlin House) in how it tells its story (again, a common theme tackled in a new way) just by use of dialogue. Have a go at it – it is much trickier than you might imagine!
Another form that I have seen used a couple of times in a really effective manner is to focus on the negative, to skirt around a story by thinking about things that aren’t there / didn’t happen, asking a reader to use the piece as a lens to find out the true story lurking underneath like in She Understands the World Through What It Is Not (Donna L Greenwood | Reflex Press). In terms of structure / form, there are so many opportunities available to us and that is one of the things that makes short fiction exciting. However, I think we should always bear in mind that the form should, as much as possible, enhance and reflect the story. The unusual form should be more than a gimmick. It should, like everything else, have a definitive purpose, a reason past trying something new.
Looking back and looking forwards
Of course, there are still plenty of stories that have never been told. We just have to look a little harder to find them. Why not look to the historical? I love historical pieces and it is always a delight when a writer sends me something historical to have a look at. While we are competing with all the writers from the past, we are also blessed with having more history and more access to historical information than at any time before – it is there at a click of our fingers. I could probably write a whole blog post about historical pieces that I love, but often it is the moments of invention or of change that provide the truly original. I come back to Frau Roentgen’s Left Hand (Anita Goveas | FlashBack Fiction) time and time again because, on the surface, it is so simple; but there is so much suggested in the gaps between the words.
Looking in the other direction, we also have the whole potential of the future to mine for stories, both the dystopian warnings and the messages of hope. Perhaps consider the last day of existence like in Picnic at the End of the World (Sharon Telfer | Cabinet of Heed)? I love the potential in this idea of both looking forwards (to what the end of the world might be like) but also in looking back (at everything we might regret / might have lost).
The subtle beauty of the everyday
Of course, not every story can or should contain an element of the surreal, or take us forwards or backwards in time, or shift into an unexpected form or structure. If every story contained a ghost or a monster or a sarcastic dolphin then those stories would stop being unique. We still need all these stories that are firmly rooted in the modern day, where nothing startlingly unusual happens. In these stories, the originality of the piece is often much more subtle. It is at the level of words and emotions. It is in that exploration of humanity and the human condition that we find the story’s uniqueness. I think Making One Hundred (Latifa Ayad | Kenyon Review) is a great example of this. It is a piece that pulls on the heartstrings and never lets them go.
Hopefully, that has filled you with some original thoughts, and if nothing else has introduced you to some wonderful stories (or reminded you of those you had previously read). I’m currently reading entries for the Lucent Dreaming flash fiction competition and will then be reading entries for the Fosseway flash fiction competition after that, so the next time I sit down at the editor’s deck to write one of these blog posts, I shall probably try and pull together my thoughts on why I’ve ended up choosing the stories I’ve chosen, what (in my opinion) makes a story stand out when it comes to judging a competition, how to improve your chances, and how pieces that win competitions are maybe slightly different from pieces that do well in lit mag submissions.
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