In this craft essay from Albert Liau, explore how scaling down your stories can help you find a new path forward in your work-in-progress. Albert Liau draws on advice from Stephen Koch, Steve Almond, George Saunders and others to advocate for new methods of locating the latent energy of our prose.
What’s the Idea Here?
In the first chapter of The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch points out that, “Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves—even to their tellers—only by being told.” So when we’re developing a work of fiction, shouldn’t we take all the opportunities we can to tell that story? Especially since opportunities to tell a story aren’t just opportunities to reveal the story but also opportunities to learn about it. As Sandra Scofield tells us in The Last Draft, “The more times I told [my story], the more I learned about it.” Here, we’ll explore a simple way to tell and learn about our stories: cast them in miniature, shrinking them to a flash-fiction/prose-poetry microcosm that can open up fresh perspectives. All the exercises that follow will be variations on this theme to address three questions: Where is the story going? What’s the best way to tell the story? What is the story about?
But why use short forms, like flash fiction, hint fiction, prose poetry or the listicle? Why not re-draft the story or sections of it? Mainly for two reasons. Short forms are more wieldy, allowing for fast, low-cost experimentation with aspects of a story. And perhaps more importantly, each short form offers a unique energy. The succinct spontaneity of micro fiction. The associative flow of poetry. The suggestive selectivity of hint fiction. The definitive discreteness of a tightly curated list. These can reinvigorate our work in ways ordinary re-drafting is less likely to.
When Steve Almond had grown weary of fashioning prose, he took up composing poetry to stunning effect: an abundance of literary productivity that brought him back to fiction writing. As he relates in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, an incredible creative liberation came from leaving literary conventions he had been long immersed in. By departing from the sophisticated storytelling modes we usually work in (short fiction, the novel, personal essay, etc.) and taking up short forms that can encourage flexibility and even afford playfulness, that story we’ve been laboring on can take on a new energy—even a spontaneity that Etgar Keret describes as akin to surfing, an engagement with our work that concerns us only with riding the narrative momentum of an imaginative wave. “The only thing you’re trying to do is not to fall off the board,” Keret says. “You really don’t ask yourself, ‘Where am I heading? Where will it end? What am I trying to say?’ You just say, ‘If I’ll keep the tone, the tone will take me somewhere.’” Through these exercises, let’s see where an attention to tone, or another element of literary craft, takes us and what thrill this may elicit in us and perhaps by extension, in the reader. Yes, thrill. Because even though the practice we’re about to engage in is low stakes, it grants us a degree of presence with our work, a particular focus of staying with it in the moment that can be electrifying. As George Saunders suggests in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “[O]ne way to produce the thrill is to stop aiming at the target and concentrate on the feeling of the arrow leaving the bow… the arrow then sails off in a certain direction and keeps adjusting course, and wherever it lands… that’s the target.” Time to pull back the bowstring and see where the story goes.
What Happens Next?
We love it when our work evokes this question in our reader’s mind, but when we’re developing the work and this question arrives unaccompanied by an answer, it can be intimidating. The next time you’re faced with this question, try writing your story in a shorter form and see what compression does to the plot—roughly speaking, the key events. Laying out a short story as flash fiction or a prose poem may allow you to see the existing trajectory of the events—the current narrative arc—and how it might extend.
Or use this approach to proceed in a plot direction you’re not yet ready to pursue—one that you’re not certain of or have been saving for later. Working in flash fiction or prose poetry can facilitate the exploration of a tentative direction, an exploration that takes the form of sentences rather than paragraphs or pages, allowing us to follow George Saunders advice that
[W]e should always be pushing the new bead to the knot. If you know where a story is going, don’t hoard it. Make the story go there, now. But then what? What will you do next? You’ve surrendered your big reveal. Exactly. Often, in our doubt that we have a real story to tell, we hold something back, fearing that we don’t have anything else. And this can be a form of trickery. Surrendering that thing is a leap of faith that forces the story to attention, saying to it, in effect, “You have to do better than that, and now that I’ve denied you your trick, your first-order solution, I know that you will.”
By shrinking a story down, we can make that leap of faith with less trepidation; the leap may become more of a hop.
Whether extrapolating where the story could go or testing out possibilities you’ve been mulling over, the idea is to focus exclusively on plot, to give it a primacy that can propel itself forward with the momentum the plot already has. As George Saunders says, “We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.” Harness the energy of the story’s existing elements so it advances. As you write the flash fiction version of your story, keep the plot points coming in rapid succession, making what Steve Almond calls “the rate of revelation” relentless, the narrative arc charging ahead as it does in a Ben Loory story, forging ever onward. Stay with that progression and keep going—like Lillian told Ian in episode 28 of Everything is Alive, “Make a path by walking.” The path in this case being the narrative progression of the story or crudely speaking, the plot: the events related to the dramatic action. As Philip Pullman puts it, the story-line is like a path through the woods, which is the broader world of the story. A piece of flash fiction that’s all path and no woods could be just the thing that allows you to see and continue the journey your characters (and by extension your readers) are on.
If you need something more drastic, write the flash fiction version of your story in a different form or with different genre conventions. This is the equivalent of transplanting elements of your story into a parallel narrative universe to see how they play out when the storytelling mechanics have been fundamentally altered. Where must the course of fictitious events go once your story has been transformed into a piece of flash speculative fiction, an encyclopedia entry or a personal ad? What does the story reveal when you change its container?
What’s the Best Way to Tell the Story?
One aspect of the literary arts that can make the author’s work exciting and daunting are the elements of craft, which give us a wide range of options for shaping our stories. Various possibilities are available for just a single element of craft; diction, style, voice, point of view (POV), point of telling, tense and structure each entail different options. With all these choices, we might spiral into ambivalence, plagued by questions. Is the POV effective? Does the voice feel authentic? To determine how craft choices could impact your story, write it (or part of it) in a smaller form multiple times, each time varying a single craft element. For example, if you’re concerned about point of view, write your short story as several flash fiction pieces that each use POV in a distinct way—say, one told in first person, another in first person but with a different POV character and the third in free indirect style. Pick the craft elements that you’re most hung up on, and use shorter forms as a low-cost means of performing informative experiments.
This is essentially a way to test out components of your narrative strategy, which Christopher Castellani describes as “the set of organizing principles that (in)form how the author is telling the story… the unique philosophy behind the construction of a work of fiction that applies to that work alone.” Repeating this exercise for various elements of craft can be a way to develop or refine your story’s narrative strategy.
What’s the Story About?
Another question that can throw us for a loop in the creative process, especially during the revision stage when we seek to hone what serves the story and cut away what isn’t—in order to make the story more true to itself, to make it a “highly organized system” in which “everything is to purpose” to borrow again from George Saunders. So why not use flash fiction to compress your story into a highly organized system?
Once you have a completed draft of a story, write a flash fiction version of it from memory; do not consult the original manuscript. Once you’re done, notice what did and didn’t make it into the flash version. What does that tell you about your story’s plot, themes and characters? Distilling what you remember of an in-progress story into a compact form tends to foreground its essence. Everything nonessential should fall away. But what if it doesn’t?
Sometimes, a story is reluctant to let only its key elements take the form of flash fiction; try as we might to tell a story more compactly, details insist on showing up on the page. This too is useful. Those persistent details likely have significance. Still, for this exercise we’re after the epitome of a story, and getting this may mean turning to a different form, such as the back cover synopsis or the scenario, which Sandra Scofield describes as “an economical dramatic narration that is a functional summary of what happens in a story.” By focusing on only what happens, we are confronted with just the story’s dramatic events, allowing us to see how they contribute to the plot—how they form the story’s causal structure—or how they don’t. A kind of litmus test. As Charles Johnson says in The Writer’s Way, “…just the bare-bones summary of a terrific story should move a listener to experience pity and fear.”
Whether a synopsis or a scenario, the summary-style version of your story can then be used as a way to refine the original version of it, whether that means adjusting plot points or culling details irrelevant to the themes or character arc.
What’s True to the Story
As we’ve seen, short literary forms are, by virtue of their compactness, well suited for exploring aspects of our literary work. Through the retelling of our stories, or parts of them, we can find answers to the questions that we may find daunting during drafting and revision: What happens next? What is the most effective way to render the story? What is this story about? This approach has the potential to answer numerous other questions as well.
To borrow from Emily Dickinson, tell the story but tell it short. Then cut and polish these nuggets of narrative until they are little gems sparkling with truth that illuminates your story.
Albert Liau is an editor who loves working at the intersection of the sciences, humanities and arts. Ever the avid reader and unabashed (incorrigible?) podcast binger, Albert continues to be fascinated by the ways storytelling conveys meaningful ideas.