I just stumbled across a year-old post by Steve Goble called “Swords and Flashery“. It hits on a topic I’ve been thinking about as I go through the submissions we’ve received over the last two months.
[After writing the first draft of a fantasy flash,] I read the [2000-word] piece and found nary an ounce of fat in it. It was the simplest kind of plot I could devise and still have a sense of drama to it. In short, there was just no way I could go back and jettison half of what I’d written.
“Come on, Steve,” you might say. “The very first submission to Flash Fiction Online was a drabble, only 100 words long. Surely we can write stories in fewer than 2,000 words!”
But the drabble I received needed absolutely no setup. Steve writes swords-and-sorcery stories. He needs lots of setup.
Science fiction and fantasy require at least one speculative element. You have to describe what the element is and show how it makes the world you’re creating different from the world we live in. If the speculative element is a person, you may need to show how this person’s history fits in with the rest of the fictional world; the rest of that fictional world then needs sufficient explanation to let it be the context for the fictional person. Objects can be the same way (think of all the history behind Gollum’s ring or the Gom Jabbar of the Bene Gesserit), as can political situations, planetary conditions, species of creature…
Well, you get the idea. If you’re making stuff up, and you want people to experience your invented world, you have to make it all fit. That’s tough to do in a thousand words.
One submission we received came from a professional author with many published stories. I’d love to get his name on my Web site. But the amount of information that came pouring off the page — just to set up the plot — was staggering. The plot itself had minimal room to move, and was therefore somewhat unsatisfying. I give him immense credit for trying to get everything into a thousand words, but I don’t think it’s possible for this particular story.
Does that mean that it’s impossible to write flash SF & fantasy? No, of course not. I’ve already published some of it, and I just agreed to buy a great little SF story by Jeff Soesbe (his first sale!) called “Apologies All Around” for the February issue. I’m acquiring the rights to a very funny SF story by Carl Frederick for our April issue. (As an aside, I’m really happy to have both someone as new as Jeff and someone as experienced as Carl on the site.) But it’s hard.
What can you do to make it work? I’m thinking out loud here, but it seems to me that you can (not must, just can) do some of these things:
(a) Make the world you’re writing about very similar to the one you’re in. The less you have to explain, the more words you can devote to plot. Since literary fiction is, generally speaking, in “our world”, there’s very little explaining to do. Literary writers have the advantage over sci fi writers here.
(b) Use dialogue sparingly — and with precision. If you read “The Materialist” from this issue, you’ll see only two brief bits of dialogue: 48 words out of a thousand. Note, though: the spoken words that made it into the story are gems. The “higher goal in mind”–“cancer research?”–“Rhodium!” exchange brilliantly and succinctly characterizes Dr. Albrecht in a way that 500 words of description couldn’t.
(c) Avoid things like the plague if they’re not part of the narrative thread. I recently participated in a flash challenge at Hatrack River. I wrote my flash between midnight and 2:30 AM the day it was due. Reading it the next day, I realized that I had included bits of history of the device that the story revolved around — history that didn’t need to be there. Excise those 150 words, and suddenly I have more space to talk about the stuff that matters: character, plot, and setting. While this theoretically isn’t purely a sci-fi-or-fantasy problem, the submissions of the last month show me that many sf writers seem to want to go down that path more than literary writers. Even if you’re an engineer, you don’t need to explain the engineering.
I’m sure there’s more. What do you think?