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Tuesday

Flash Fiction Craft: So What (Exactly) is Brevity in Flash Fiction?

Every word counts. That’s the myth, I believe, of flash fic­tion. It’s a lit­er­al truth, sure­ly, when one is giv­en only so many words to make a flash. But that’s often the extent of the advice flash fic­tion writ­ers get about work­ing with brevi­ty: make every word count. As if such a thing were pos­si­ble.

So what does it (real­ly) mean to work with brevi­ty? I won’t keep repeat­ing this warn­ing, but here it is one more time: of course, all that fol­lows are my sub­jec­tive ideas about writ­ing, and are in no way meant to rep­re­sent the all of writ­ing.

Imag­ine an open­ing sen­tence, like this one:

The bul­let not meant for the dri­ver of the car missed him, instead hit­ting the pas­sen­ger next to him. (19 words)

Brevi­ty might impose itself on this sen­tence first by look­ing at “less wordy” ways of express­ing the same idea. For exam­ple, dri­ver of the car might become the car’s dri­ver. Two words recov­ered! The him after missed him might not be need­ed. Anoth­er word! So that leaves us with this:

The bul­let not meant for the car’s dri­ver missed, instead hit­ting the pas­sen­ger next to him. (16 words) 

In a world where every word is try­ing to mat­ter and lit­er­al­ly counts, then impli­ca­tion becomes anoth­er tool of the writer work­ing with brevi­ty. Does dri­ver imply car? Does pas­sen­ger imply next to him? If so, we now have this:

The bul­let not meant for the dri­ver missed, instead hit­ting the pas­sen­ger. (13 words)

What about not meant for the dri­ver mod­i­fy­ing bul­let? Is there a word that cap­tures that sense? What about this:

The stray bul­let missed the dri­ver, instead hit­ting the pas­sen­ger. (10 words)

But is brevi­ty only about cut­ting things to the barest essen­tials? I think it’s also about adding “weight” to the words, to see how much infor­ma­tion, theme, back­sto­ry, char­ac­ter (and so on) each word might car­ry. The who of this sto­ry might be more clear­ly defined by this addi­tion.

The stray bul­let missed the dri­ver, instead hit­ting his wife. (10 words)

Notice how the his implies the driver’s gen­der and rela­tion­ship (hus­band). Why did the bul­let miss? I always think hav­ing a char­ac­ter be some­how respon­si­ble for the action adds inter­est and ten­sion. How might the hus­band be respon­si­ble in some way? What if he had ducked at the sound of gun­shot? How might brevi­ty help get that infor­ma­tion into that sen­tence? What word might cap­ture that move­ment: Duck? Dodge? Evade? Is the hus­band some­one who dodges things in gen­er­al? Maybe. But missed the dodg­ing dri­ver sounds odd and unclear to me. Maybe the sen­tence needs to be changed so the dri­ver is doing the action.

The dri­ver ducked, the stray bul­let instead hit­ting his wife. (10 words)

Does it make sense why he ducked? Does that need to be made clear?

At the sound of the gun­shots, the dri­ver ducked, the stray bul­let instead hit­ting his wife. (16 words)

or

The dri­ver heard gun­shots, ducked, the stray bul­let instead hit­ting his wife. (12 words)

Does that sec­ond sen­tence kind of cap­ture the husband’s pro­gres­sion, so that the sen­tence itself hears it, ducks, and then veers else­where? Maybe. The orig­i­nal sen­tence clocked in at 19 words. What might we do with those oth­er 7 words?

The dri­ver heard gun­shots, ducked, the stray bul­let instead hit­ting his wife. Reflex, he said, in the ambu­lance. To leave me uncov­ered, she said. (24 words)

Oh, no. Five words over the orig­i­nal 19! That won’t do.

The dri­ver heard gun­shots, ducked, the stray bul­let just miss­ing his wife’s heart. Reflex, he said, in the ambu­lance. To leave me uncov­ered, she coun­tered. (25 words).

Oh, fudge. Now six words too many.

The dri­ver heard gun­shots, ducked, the bul­let bare­ly miss­ing his wife’s heart. Reflex, he said, in the ambu­lance. To dodge, she coun­tered. (22 words).

Get­ting there. Now three words too many.

He heard gun­shots, ducked, the bul­let bare­ly miss­ing his wife’s heart. Reflex, he said, in the car dial­ing 911. To dodge, she coun­tered. (23 words).

The dri­ver heard gun­shots, ducked, the bul­let bare­ly miss­ing his wife’s heart. Reflex, he said, await­ing help. To dodge, she coun­tered. (21 words)

Wait! If this is the first line, maybe the title can help out in some way. What if the title were “While Dri­ving”?

He heard shots, ducked, the bul­let bare­ly miss­ing Sara’s heart. Reflex, he said, await­ing help. To dodge, she coun­tered. (19 words)

So what is brevi­ty exact­ly? I don’t know. It’s about get­ting words to count more than they might in oth­er less-com­pressed forms. It has some­thing to do with being aware of need­less words and the pow­er of impli­ca­tion. It’s about adding weight to words by mak­ing each one car­ry a num­ber of impor­tant things with­in the sto­ry. The above open­ing might incite a sto­ry in which the man’s reflex­ive desire to “dodge” keeps lead­ing to that shot (of Cupid?) miss­ing his wife’s heart, and this inci­dent brings that con­flict to the sur­face. His reflex runs counter to what the wife imag­ines love should be; he should reflex­ive­ly pro­tect her, not duck out of the way.

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