FLASH FICTION – THE ART OF SHORT SHORT STORY TELLING.
Ultra-short short stories are coming back into fashion. There is a growing demand for stories that can be told in one page or less. Exact word limits can vary from 25 to 1,000 words, though most flash editors set a ceiling of 100 or 200 words.
Writing a story with a beginning, middle and end in such restricted space is truly an art form. We live in the age of blockbuster novels, and every book seems to leave the way open for an inevitable sequel. The Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling get bigger with each volume. The later ones often lack the spark of the earlier masterpieces. Much of their marketing involves the editors playing a hyped up guessing game about which major recurring character will die before the end of the book. Many booksellers today won’t entertain a work that comes in at less than a thousand pages.
Even commercial poetry has tended to grow long. Haiku and sonnet collections are not commonplace on the shelves, though they do well on the Internet. There is a growing tendency to confuse epic story telling with long story telling.
The short story has fallen on hard times. Only children’s fairy tales such as The Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood tend to still sell. People want to spend a token period of time settling their kids in for the night before rushing down to watch the soap operas in peace. The increasing cost of books has also meant that grown ups buy themselves doorstop novels that will save them having to buy a new book for a month or more. The wonderful concise works of Edgar Allan Poe, G. K. Chesterton, Saki, and O Henry frequently gather dust on the shelves.
It was not always so. The short story was often a source of light relief from study of heavier academic work. Francis Bacon even realised that he could sell short academic papers and essays that could serve as light bedtime reading, to stir the sleeping imagination. His Essays were a major bedside bestseller of the early 17th Century. The works of a contemporary, like Thomas Hobbes (Author of The Leviathan) would involve much greater study and concentration and time. Bacon provided light relief.
In the 1950’s Science Fiction pulp magazines promoted a number of short stories with dramatic or amusing twists. Many were little more than jokes, written to end with a witty groan inducing pun. (The pun-chline). They were seen as a direct counterbalance to the heavier book chapters and novella length stories that such publications also presented. Martin H Greenberg edited collections of 100 Great Short Science Fiction Stories (1978) and 100 Great Fantasy Short Stories (1984), which collected together the best of such works, with well-known authors like Isaac Asimov and Frederick Brown contributing their ideas. There were also major anthologies collected by Alfred Hitchcock, and Roald Dahl produced his own Tales Of The Unexpected, with a promise of a twist in the tale of each.
By the 1990’s the Golden age of short story telling was over. Increasing numbers of television channels and changing work patterns have robbed people of their precious reading time. Public transport costs have driven more people to drive to work, robbing us of the pleasure of reading in relaxation on the bus and train, which was a means by which the short story flourished. No one wanted to be half way through a chapter of a book when it was time to disembark.
Many readers are now starting to turn back to the simple pleasures of the short story. There is recognition that authors like Stephen King, who once wrote excellent horror stories gradually declined in quality as his paperbacks grew and grew. Each new book took a 200-page thriller and padded it out into an 800 to 1,000-page opus. Quality now tended to decline. Characters would be built up in the reader’s minds just to be killed off, without carrying the plot any further. King is only cited here as an example. He is far from alone. Many of the heavy reads have a tendency to become dull entertainment. It is not necessary to call a horse a quadropedal equine mammal when the word ‘horse’ will suffice.
Bestseller readers frequently skip long drawn out middle passages and rush to the end of a work that clearly sags in the middle. The big book can often leave its readers feeling slightly cheated. People are beginning to notice when something is over-inflated.
You can see padding easily on TV. In a show that has to last an hour, you will often see the action interrupted by long tracking shots of a car going down a road, or aircraft flying from airports. This is necessary to some extent to show that the action is changing location, but the shots will be longer and more frequent in duration if the programme producers and editors find that the action and dialogue actually telling their story is a few minutes short of the full hour required. In books it is often the same. You should ask, as you read a story, why a particular lovemaking scene is going on for page after page. Why is the main character lost in the woods for so long? In some books, this could be crucial to the story, but in others it is merely adding words and pages for the sake of expanding the text and meeting a required publishing length. The short-short story has no truck with such padding. To tell a tale in 100 words, every word must account for itself. The short story becomes an art form that few leading authors could handle.
It is the poor and pretentious quality of heavy literature that has revived interest in the short story, and in Flash, short means really short.
Modern authors who want to present work of quality as well as in quantity have recognised the value of keeping their work short and to the point. Creative writing schools often tell a student to write something and then write it again in half the words. Writers recognise that the shorter the work presented in a writing class, the more different stories and poems can be discussed by the reading-groups. If everyone takes in lengthy chapters from longer books, little can be covered, and many authors will find that their work, at the bottom of the pile submitted, doesn’t get looked at before the class ends. In fact, many amateur writers will dabble in poetry, and short verse formats before turning their minds to prosaic story telling. With a poem like a 14 line sonnet, you are restricted to very set line lengths and metric structures. The poet who turns his/her hand to prose will often be more disciplined than someone who just writes page after page of narrative prose.
Flash fiction, and even flash non-fiction provides an exciting medium in which to exercise a concise writing skill. Magazines often cry out for short filler items when they have gaps between their longer features. The Internet also attracts a growing readership who would grow tired of scrolling through a screen to read an entire novel, or waiting for it to print out. There is also a growing trend for sending stories to mobile phones, which by their mature have very small screens. The short-as-short-can-be Flasher story is ideally suited to such a medium. It is also handy literature for a hospital library, as patients will be less inclined to start reading Moby Dick if they know that they will be going home within a few days.
Flash fiction takes short to an extreme. It is the Haiku of prose writing. There are rules that must be obeyed. It must be a story and not merely an incident or a scene from a longer work. It should not be a descriptive passage, in which the characters do no more than kiss. It has to tell a story and tell it well.
An early piece of graffiti in England, that possibly predates the Roman invasion, was the simple three-word poem now believed to refer to Fleas. It said simply Adam ‘ad ‘em.’ (Adam had them). Few stories or poems could be as short as that, but it goes to show that a few words can say a great deal, often just as much as a lot of words. Your next read need not be War And Peace. It could be over as quick as a flash.
Examples of my 100 words or less short stories.
MY SCIENCE FICTION FLASH ERS
Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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