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Friday, December 17, 2010

Not-so-sudden Flash about Sudden Fiction

I've been enjoying this strange, intriguing journey of writing short scenes in my new novel, Intended for Harm, inspired by a book I had read many years ago: Palm in the Hand stories by Japanese Nobel laureate Kawabata. When I began plotting out my novel and knew I had to unveil a family drama over a period of forty years, I saw immediately how to construct it--inspired by Kawabata's intriguing style of creating complete short stories that filled roughly one page.

I've always loved short stories and admired the craft. Writing a short story is much harder than a novel; you have to boil down everything you mean to say and imply in the fewest words possible. Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munroe are my top favorites; they are able to capture a slice of life in a short scene that tells so much more than is put in words. Implication, to me, is the most powerful and artful way of writing, and so I envisioned my novel as comprising each year as a chapter, with a handful of short scenes that would cover about fifteen minutes of time--my version of a palm in the hand story.

Silly me--I had thought Kawabata was the creator of such an amazing idea. I didn't know that authors like Hemingway, Vonnegut, Kafka, and Chekhov had also written in this manner on occasion. And I didn't even know that the current rages of "flash fiction" and "sudden fiction" were describing this very thing. I looked up these terms and discovered flash fiction is usually for a short piece between 300-1000 words, whereas sudden fiction is over 1000 words. Maybe sudden implies a longer lengthy moment than flash. Not sure who came up with these definitions, but the term "flash fiction" is thought to have been coined by the 1992 anthology of that name.

Of course, my scenes are not exactly sudden fiction, since they are not complete stories in themselves, but I do try to create the sense that each scene is a complete vignette or slice of life in itself. The challenge for me is to come up with an ordinary moment, not a string of key, suspenseful, benchmark moments in the lives of the Abrams family. Rather, I want to take a slice out life, fifteen minutes out of an ordinary day, and reveal the emotional landscape of the characters at that moment. Sure, I am putting in conflict, unspoken needs, hidden fears, unvoiced dreams. But instead of a continuity of time, where one scene generally flows close in time out of the previous, all these scenes are separated by many months. Which creates a huge writing challenge. The tendency for many writers would be to slop up the scenes with massive amounts of back story to catch the reader up to the present moment. but that would weigh down the story and defeat the whole structure. Instead, it takes careful thought to move the reader along through the years at a fast clip, building character arcs and aging characters, yet keeping some sort of flow to the whole thread stitching it together. Needless to say, it's a great challenge but seems to be working.

I would encourage readers to pick up Kawabata's book and read these beautiful tales so full of life, pain, and poignancy. In a hurry-up world, it makes sense that flash fiction has come into vogue, with its many online ezines and other outlets for writers to post their stories. Again, I will reiterate my belief (and maybe some of you are tiring of hearing it)--more isn't necessarily better. In fact, less is almost always more. if you can learn how to be succinct and moving by trimming to to the bare essence of a thought, a moment, a glance, you can produce a powerful effect. Sometimes just a few words can have more force than 1,000. So think, mull, choose carefully. find the best word, the best phrase, the best paragraph to say what you mean. And then say it in less words. Perhaps if all writers wrote one short piece of flash fiction each week, and then polished it to perfection, it would help train us to be better word handlers, and not just throw out the first things that come to mind onto the page--which are almost always dull, cliche, and uninspired.


  1. The only writer who can fully intrigue me with more words (instead of less) is Tolkien. Modern writers definitely need to keep it as short as possible, because honestly, most modern readers have short attention spans.

  2. Good food for thought! I'm getting ready to freshen up and restart my spec fiction novel that I put aside for a nonfiction. It was good to put it aside, because I found more ways to deepen the story line.