In my opinion, all good fiction should have an emotional core. It is what helps the reader connect with a story's characters and it infuses the narrative with life. It is possible to write an excellent story without referencing time or place. In some well-regarded stories, there is very little discernible plot. Protagonists and antagonists that are painted in only the vaguest brush strokes can come alive in a reader's mind. But take away emotions and the story is likely to fall flat because it will lack any sort of depth. Most readers don't want to read something that has the emotional complexity of the phone book.
Emotions, then, are important. That doesn't make them easy. Whereas an actor can display emotion through a subtle eyebrow or an angry twitching of the nose, a writer has to find a way of embedding how their characters feel without disrupting the thrust of their story. An oft quoted mantra is that writers should 'show' rather than 'tell' - i.e. we shouldn't just say 'Pedro was angry' but instead should relate how Pedro displays his anger. Do his hands ball up into fists? Does he fold his arms or tighten his lips? On the other side of the coin, most writers of shorter fiction are constrained by a need for concision. It, therefore, becomes a balancing act between too much and too little, leaning too far towards 'telling' or too far towards reader confusion. And, of course, to be effective, the emotional core needs to extend through the whole piece, often undergoing minuscule transmutations in reaction to events.
The six pieces of poetry and flash fiction that I have picked out for this month's showcase blog all demonstrate brilliant understanding of how to show emotions. They deal with sadness, loneliness, body image and much more in clever, insightful ways.
The shorter the story, the less space a writer has to tease out the emotions they want to convey. In this piece of micro-fiction by Alanna Donaldson, I was bowled over by the fact that she manages to not only narrate a mother's long-held secret guilt but also to imply a whole lifetime of emotions, suggesting frictions below the surface of the mother-son relationship and the son's deep-seated trauma from an event he doesn't remember. Thematically, she has packed in forgiveness, the cyclical nature of life and how memory can be illusory:
If you want to find out more about Alanna, why not check out her website and/or follow her on Twitter @alannamadeleine
Next up, a story from Laura Ward-Smith that is chock-a-block with insecurities and contradictions. It is brilliantly evocative of the complex relationships between teenage girls as it deals with aspects of image, popularity and self-destructive tendencies. I love the way that Laura explores her narrator's 'inside' feelings and compares them to the image she wishes to portray to the world. In the first paragraph, she says “I am not one of those girls formed flimsily in the shape of other people’s gazes.” However, as the story flows towards its conclusion, it becomes clear that this statement is not a concrete truth:
You can follow Laura on Twitter @La_Wardy
What we feel inside is not always the same as the emotional sheen that we show on the surface. And this poses an extra dilemma for a writer. In this next story by Spencer Litman, a woman keeps a mirror in her closet that is “for only one person.” It materialises “a version of her that only exists in this reflection.” And this device helps pick out the contrast of inner/outer emotions. It can be tricky for a writer to write in the voice of the opposite sex and the chosen subject matter requires sensitive handling but I think that Spencer does all this in a beautiful, effortless way:
Spencer can be found on Twitter @LitmanSpencer
Next up, some poetry by Hayley Sleigh. Thematically, it explores similar territory to Spencer's story above. The opening line extols - “Do not call it courage when I leave / the house without make-up” - and this exploration of body image is fantastically woven with contrasting examples of bravery from the past. The poem is shot through with emotions whilst questioning what bravery looks like in this modern world of “bendy bananas / and chlorinated chicken.” It has lovely comic touches but like all good poems it poses serious questions:
Hayley has her own website and is on Twitter @haysleigh
Subtlety is an art form, or so the saying goes. And what I love about this next piece by Adam Lock is how restrained it is in showing its characters' emotions. The story revolves around a woman taking her son to a play date and on the face of it, very little happens in the narrative. There are no sudden revelations and no shock twists. Instead, it is what I would term a 'quiet' story. It revels in the small details. Adam is expertly perceptive in painting the personalities of his small cast and digging below the surface of his protagonist's outer layers. Not only is the sense of place vivid in my mind as I read this but I also feel completely immersed in the protagonist's thoughts and feelings:
Adam is a really supportive member of the writing community. You can find links to his numerous other stories on his website and he is on Twitter @dazedcharacter
A story from Laure Van Rensburg to end with. I love writing that really plays with language and I think that the first line of 'A Ghost Story' is quite exquisite. “I became a ghost around the same time people became shoes.” It does so much - it establishes the subject matter and tone of the piece as well as (purposefully) throwing the reader off-kilter. The imagery used throughout is brilliantly creative. The ground-level focus on shoes passing by cleverly takes away the usual emotion indicators of face and eyes so that when these do come into the equation, it allows for an emotional crescendo that is beautifully poignant:
Laure is on Twitter @Laure0901
Hopefully, the above selection of literary gems have hit you (softly) in the feels. Next month, I'll be showcasing brilliant pieces that break the mould in some way from conventional story-telling wisdom.
If you've enjoyed the above six wonderful stories/poems by Alanna, Hayley, Laura, Laure, Adam and Spencer, please leave a comment below to show your appreciation.
PS - If you want more suggestions for fantastic flash fiction and short stories that are well worth your attention, why not check out Adam Lock's blog feature 'Favourite Shorts' or how how about Anita Goveas' 'Short Story Sunday'?