Two columns ago, I looked at how the writer can save words by using a character that the reader already knows. We can also tell stories by leaving out narrative sections or details that the reader can supply on her own either because the story, or the type of story, is already familiar or else because the writer has already supplied enough of the story for the reader to fill in the rest.
Actually, leaving things for the reader to supply — writing efficiently — is one hallmark of good writing at any length. Even a novel that the reader enjoys for its descriptive detail will become tedious if the writer describes everything. All writing is a collaboration with the reader, and a good writer knows when to get out of the way and lets the reader’s imagination do the rest.
When I talk to my writing students about overwriting, the defect of supplying too much detail, I give them this sentence: “Lighting her way with the candelabra, she descended the broad staircase, crossed the floor, and opened the door.”
Do you have a picture of this unnamed character and her action in your head? Then consider the questions I put to my students about this scene: What is the woman wearing? What is the floor made of? How would you describe the door?
No one ever sees the woman descending those stairs in a skimpy nightgown, in jeans and a T-shirt, or in a raincoat. You’ve probably imagined her in either a long nightgown or a long dress. No one ever sees a wall-to-wall carpet on this floor. You’ve probably seen a stone floor or a wooden one, perhaps with an elaborate rug. The door is massive, solid, and possibly equipped with an iron knocker. You may have heard the sound of iron hinges even though I haven’t mentioned sound until now. Not every reader will imagine exactly the same clothes or the same room, but most will imagine a roughly similar scene based only on the candelabra and the broad stairs.
Beginning writers will often try to control too much of the reader’s imagination, describing clothes, facial configurations, and the placement of furniture in a room. There are circumstances in which the reader must be given particular details because the reader will otherwise imagine the wrong thing. For instance, if your novel’s protagonist is going to take offense when another character tells a dumb-blonde joke on page 40, it would be a good idea to establish in the first pages that she is blonde. Without such guidance, by the time readers have reached page 40, they may have spent all of those 40 pages imagining a brunette or a redhead. Every mention of the protagonist’s blonde hair (if this detail arrives too late) will now disrupt their reading experience. If a detail matters, establish it as soon as possible. But be selective. Your readers will supply the rest.
If efficiency makes for good prose generally, it’s especially vital in flash fiction. Efficiency applies both to description and story events. You can substitute an ellipsis for part of the story.
Here’s a series of shades: “White, light gray, medium gray,…”
What comes next? Once you see the direction that my series is going, you don’t really need me to say “dark gray, black,” do you? The ellipsis can occur anywhere in a series where the reader will be able to fill in what isn’t stated, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of a series:
…4, 5, 6…
100, 200, … 800, 900.
In an earlier column, I discussed writing flash fiction fairy tales. When you retell a familiar tale to suit your own purposes, you have basically two tasks: remind the reader of the original, and show how your version is different.
This is how James Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf” can retell Little Red Riding Hood in under 200 words. Thurber reminds us of the basic set-up: girl meets wolf, reveals that she is on her way to her grandmother’s house, and the wolf gets there ahead of her. Then the story reveals how it is different: The girl arrives to find the wolf in her grandmother’s bed, dressed as her grandmother. The little girl then shoots the wolf dead. The moral: “It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”
Notice that the grandmother and the woodcutter don’t appear as characters in this Thurber’s version. If the wolf has eaten the grandmother, she is rendered superfluous. The woodcutter is made superfluous because the heroine has solved the problem on her own. Anything that doesn’t contribute to reminding and revealing is removed.
Such retellings are a staple of brief satire. BBC Radio Four recently aired a series called The News at Bedtime, a nightly newscast from storyland. One news story featured Jack, who had just grown an enormous beanstalk, and a Greenpeace activist who was protesting against what was clearly a genetically modified crop. Jack climbs the beanstalk and returns with a goose that lays golden eggs, another clearly unnatural product of genetic meddling, according to the activist. In this case, the reader is reminded of the original tale and shown a different version simultaneously, as opposed to the two-step process in Thurber’s story. But like the Thurber story, this tale leaves out the middle. Jack’s adventure in the giant’s castle is irrelevant to Jack’s conflict with Greenpeace, so it disappears.
In these first two examples, the writer relies on the reader’s knowledge of a particular, familiar tale. Flash fiction can also rely on the reader’s ability to recognize traditional story patterns. If, for instance, I tell you that a wood-cutter had three sons and that he sent them out into the world, one by one, to find their fortune, you already know, roughly, what will happen with the first and second, sons. In one fairy tale after another, the older brothers fail in their mission. The youngest will then somehow prevail.
My example story, “Okra, Sorghum, Yam,” relies on a reader’s general knowledge of how fairy tales work. The retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk left out the middle bit. My story tells the middle bit only and lets the reader imagine the beginning and ending. I don’t actually have three dots at the beginning and end, but the reader can see the prose equivalent in the first and last sentences of the story.
Using actual ellipses as punctuation can suggest that there is more to the narrative if the reader will only think about it a little. Russell Edson writes brief narratives that are classed as prose poems, but many of them can also be read as (and have been anthologized as) flash fiction. Edson uses a lot of ellipses, both within the text and as his final punctuation. In his retrospective collection, The Tunnel, more than half of Edson’s poems end with an ellipse as if to say, “These things I’ve just revealed to you go on and on in this way.” Or, as Kurt Vonnegut sometimes wrote, “And so it goes.”
Provided that the story action has some kind of momentum by the end, the reader will sometimes be satisfied with an ending of “et cetera.” Whether that ending satisfies or not depends on whether the reader is sufficiently entertained by the parts of the story that have been told and is likely to agree that those are, indeed, the parts worth telling.
Next time, The Minimal Story: How Short Can You Go?
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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© 2015 Bruce Holland Rogers