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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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Written by Matter Press's founder and managing editor Randall Brown, A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction [ISBN: 0983792852} provides NOT the way to write flash fiction, but SOME ways to make your writing flash! Contents include the following:

  • What is Flash
  • Flash Craft
  • Flash in a Single Scene
  • Flash in a Series of Scenes
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  • Episodic Flash
  • Counterpointed Flash
  • Defamiliarized Flash
  • Revision
  • Prose Poemy Flash

 The Pocket Guide also includes articles and flashes from various writers including Pamela Painter, Quinn Dalton, Dan Holt, Pen Campbell, Brady Udall, Sean Lovelace, Myfanwy Collins, Kathy Fish, Carol Guess, and Jeff Landon.

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