An Essay by Wayne Scheer, an IWW member
I've been thinking about the issue of size lately--the length of a story, that is. I keep hearing differing views from people I respect. One person argues that flash fiction--stories under a thousand words--is just an exercise, describing a moment in time without fleshed out characters or plot. Others argue that it is precisely the succinctness of these stories that make them so emotionally authentic.
I'm tempted to repeat the old adage that a story should be as long as it needs to be, and let it go at that. But bumper-sticker philosophy never really satisfies, so let me write in order to see what I mean.
I want to defend short writing because I do a lot of it, and have found a modicum of success in ezines like flashquake, Flash Me Magazine, and Whim's Place. Going short has been good for me. It's improved my editing skills, and it's forced me to think in terms of vivid images. The difficult challenge is to wring honest emotion from a story so short and to bring the story to a natural, satisfying conclusion.
The tendency is to go for a quick shocker of an end. But the writer of flash fiction soon learns that shock and authentic feeling are two very different things. These aren't easy to write and the editing is downright painful, yet I've written some flash stories under two hundred words I'm proud of.
On the other hand, these short pieces are obviously limiting. I can't allow myself the luxury of a digression. Usually I can't even include a relevant description if it requires more than just a quick analogy. I certainly can't just sit back, relax, and see where the characters lead me. Because of this, too often these short pieces come more from the head than the heart.
I fear what writing these kinds of stories might be doing to me as a writer. The novel I thought I'd be well into by now has been pushed onto the proverbial back burner because I think in terms of what I can leave out of a story rather than what I should put into one. My writing is tighter for it, but my sense of story, good old-fashioned plot, remains underdeveloped.
I also enjoy writing the flash surprise ending story. I know they're gimmicky and often characters are just props, but they're fun to write and fairly easy to publish on the Internet, so I assume others find them fun to read as well. I see nothing wrong with amusing myself and, I hope, my readers. These stories help keep me in shape for longer pieces by forcing me to concentrate on the challenge of preparing the reader for the ending without giving it away. In a piece this short, foreshadowing is particularly tricky. These stories usually contain snappy dialogue that helps the reader "hear" my characters, since I don't have the space to describe them. The trick is to make them visible through their words. And there's at least the sense of a story here that moves beyond just a central scene or moment in time.
For me, these surprise-ending, under-a-thousand-worders are fairly easy to write. Too easy. Especially the funny ones. And I have a lazy streak these stories feed on. I worry that perhaps my fascination with such short writing is really a rationale for avoiding more difficult writing challenges.
Then there are the serious, short pieces, the ones about fifteen- to twenty-five hundred words, the kind with a message that, I hope, packs a solid emotional punch. For the emotion to work, or the idea to express itself organically, the characters and situation have to be believable. There's a little more space for description and narration, but not much. I still have to be extremely selective or the story runs off like a horse in the wild. These stories don't come easily to me. They often start as a two- or three-hundred-word flash and develop through revision, when something personal, hidden at first, rises to the surface. I always find it a thrill when this happens because I know I'm on to something real.
Longer stories, of course, are good, too. I try to work on longer pieces while I'm also writing shorter ones. I don't know why I do this because it drives me crazy. But I think it may have something to do with my own personal defense mechanism. My longer stories tend to get to me on a subconscious level; they creep into my dreams. Even when I think they are fictional, bits and pieces of myself and people I know appear in ways that surprise me. I find that the longer stories are good therapy and, having the space to develop characters and extend a plot, also makes for good
At any rate, they take a lot longer; I revise them extensively and rarely find a home for them online. Longer stories need print publications and this means long waits for responses, surely a test of patience.
So what have I discovered after musing on this matter of size? Probably nothing more than stories should be as long as they need to be. But I'm also more determined than ever to keep writing, no matter the length of the story.
Size really doesn't matter.
Wayne Scheer began writing about five years ago, after retiring from a teaching career. Since then, he's published over one hundred stories, short and long ones, in both print publications like The Christian Science Monitor and such e-zines as The Pedestal, Thought Magazine and flashquake. He doesn't know if that impresses anyone, but it impresses the hell out of himself.