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Thursday Flash Craft: Using Doom, Tragedy, and Hegel to Write (Short) Short Fiction

Tragedy and Writing (Short) Short Fiction ImageThe Hegelian tragic vision arose from Hegel’s obsession with Sophocles’ Antigone. What I like about the vision is its specificity and its compression of complex ideas into simple, declarative sentences. In Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision, Ruprecht summarizes the key aspects of Hegel’s tragic stance:

Hegel emphasizes several things that become essential to his tragic vision. First and foremost…he emphasizes that the Greek tragic heroes…always have a hand in their own destruction. Tragedy is the realm of Destiny, not Fate.…Hegel’s tragic ruminations also offer two tentative definitions of sorts, that taken together neatly summarize his mature views. The first is that there is no gain without a commensurate loss.…A second point is…[that] tragedy derives from the fact that there is more than one will in the world. As such, tragedy becomes a permanent feature of human life, both in society and before God, yet it is not necessarily beyond redemption. (72).

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Three clear ideas emerge here, each one a potential exercise for a short short. 

  • A story in which a character creates his/her own destruction.
  • A story in which a character’s gain is tempered by an equal loss.
  • A story that demonstrates the impossibility of satisfying all the “wills in the world.”

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Writers who have their characters create their own doom end up with a story far more complex and interesting than those who use Fate to drive the narrative into existence. Imagine, for example, that Bob’s plane crashes, killing his two sons. Now add these tragic elements. Bob’s business was going under, and without the money, his kids would never be able to go to college. So Bob started cutting corners—and one of the bolts Bob made didn’t hold, sending his plane plummeting to the earth. (The sort-of plot of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.)

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Without the tragic condition that character must create destiny, the world becomes that of the victim and the emotional response in an audience becomes predominantly that of pathos. Yes, sometimes other people destroy us—bombs go off and kill people who did nothing to bring that horror upon themselves. A viewer of such horrors is left with the impression of senselessness, of the random, chaotic nature of existence. It’s easy to confuse such feelings with tragedy, but tragedy concerns itself with dualities, the tangled up truth of meaning and meaninglessness, fate and free will, the positive and the negative. That hand in our own doom is essential for tragedy; it’s the complex nature of existence that we are both victim and perpetrator.

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In Joseph Young’s “Troubadour,” a finalist in Lit Pot’s 2003 Flash Fiction Contest, the male protagonist’s unhappiness originates from within his own self, creating that tragic urgency—that sense of plumbing the darker depths of our identities.

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Read it here.

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In Young’s short short, Rob’s “I don’t know…I can’t help it” points to the character trait that will bring unhappiness and ruin into his life. Notice how Young infuses this character with positive traits—his poetic vision of the girl moving toward the ocean and his passionate (and foolish, yes) offer to die for her. The tragic hero’s the “believer,” the one whose vision glimpses some dark truth beyond the rest of us, and his suffering originates not in Gail or the girl or the world itself, but in some uncontrollable, unknowable force within himself. “God help me,” Rob calls out. Is God to blame, for putting this “thing” inside Rob? Did Rob create it himself? Young’s story ends in darkness, as it must, the darkness of this force within, not only of Rob but of us, that leads us to suffering when we (so easily it would seem) could choose happiness. Why don’t we? Why can’t we? The tragic leads to the unanswerable, brings us to those boundary-situations—on one side, what we’re allowed to grasp; on the other, what we can merely guess at, glimpse for fleeting moments.

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Yes, one can learn from “watching,” but most writers learn best from writing. So here’s an exercise that puts this dynamic into play. Your story will end with a character’s profoundly unhappy state. The unhappiness that follows must not result from anything outside the character. Whatever that “dooming” trait is, make it appear as something with positive potential. Each action brings the character down and the choice the character makes—to be unhappy—can be intermingled with some positive quality emerging also.

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