As someone who is
new to writing very short fiction, I have recently re-learned the importance of
the tired old English-class phrase “show, don’t tell.” For the last ten years
or so, I have been working on a novel in which my goal was length — just to get
to 60,000 words. But in flash fiction, when there are only 250 or 500 or 750 or
even 1,000 words to work with, suddenly every word becomes more valuable. I
have found that if I want to convey character, setting, mood, plot, and theme
in a very short space, showing becomes imperative. Here are some ways I’ve
tried to go about this, which you might also choose to use in your writing.
Figurative language is your friend. Similes
and metaphors are fine, but I suggest trying the rarely used synecdoche and
metonymy. Synecdoche — substituting the part for the whole (as in the classic
example of “Friends, Roman, countrymen, lend me your ears”) or the specific for
the general — and metonymy — substituting a name with a related word (when the “White
House” makes an announcement, for example), allow you to show while still
remaining firmly in a character’s point of view. Take this example, from a
flash I am currently working on called “Active Shooter.” In this story, Lindy,
a teacher, is going through safety training after recently — and reluctantly -
“Attention!” Bell says into the mic.
“Armed intruder in the building! He’s in the lobby.” The teachers run for the exit on their left.
The sound of Bell’s next announcement — “He’s moved to the guidance hallway!”
— is drowned out by the harsh sound of the phone in Lindy’s jeans. It is
Mark’s ring. In her haste, she had
turned the ringer on — not off. Rubber soles run out the door on the right
that leads to the lobby.
Instead of saying
“the teachers all ran out the door on the right,” which is more telling than
showing, I used synecdoche, referring to the rubber shoes running instead. My hope here was to keep the reader in
Lindy’s mind. She is not looking at the other teachers running out, but she
would hear them leaving. By only describing the shoes, I am trying to create a
fully-realized action through a subtle gesture, one that does not drag the
reader away from what is going on inside Lindy’s head.
Think about emotional compression. This
is an extension of the synecdoche idea. By using simple or subtle gestures, a
writer can convey an interior emotional state without extensive exposition. Here
is another example from “Active Shooter,” this time from the very beginning of
Lindy’s attention rebounds into the
auditorium when the SWAT captain calls on her. She walks to the front with the
other teachers, pulling on the unfamiliar tightness of her engagement ring.
She’ll have to get it resized, if she can ever get it off her finger.
My goal here was
to get across all of the necessary information without actually telling the
reader any of the exposition. I wanted the reader to know that Lindy is
recently engaged and feels trapped. I tried to get this across by choosing my
details carefully. I referred to the “unfamiliar tightness” of the ring,
suggesting that it is new and also uncomfortable. The fact that she cannot get
the ring off her finger shows that she is stuck in a situation she feels like
she can’t get out of.
Here is another
example of this, from a different flash. This one is called “Lentils in Black
Rice,” and it is a transformation of the version of Cinderella written by the
Brothers Grimm. At this point in the story, the Prince and the Cinderella
character are already married, but Cinderella keeps reverting to her
Ella only missed two gavotte lessons
before the Prince went to look for her this time. He found her, as he expected,
in the pear grove, but unexpectedly alone. He watched her spin nimbly on her
toes, grass staining the knees of her grey gown, hair whirling around her face.
She sang to the refugees from the pigeon-house that perched in the trees. Pear
juice dripped from her chin. The Prince thought of her on the second night of
the festival in a shining silver dress, her hair caged in ribbons and braids.
After midnight, he returned with his axe.
I wanted to show
that the Prince is horrified by Cinderella’s reversion to her old life and that
he wants to mold her into his perfect princess. However, I didn’t actually want
to say any of that. Instead, by having the Prince imagine her with her hair
“caged in ribbons and braids,” I tried to convey that he wants her to be more
constrained, more straightlaced, beautiful but formed to his desires.
Showing through temporal compression.
Time markers can be very tell-y rather than show-y, and they can take up
valuable space that might be better used by something else. Think about if
there is a way to show the passage of time through specific details without
actually telling the reader how much time has passed. I tried to do this in a
flash piece I wrote called “Luna e Talia,” which is another fairy tale transformation,
this time using the stories of both Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. I wanted to
show that many years were going by as Luna, the Rapunzel stand-in, grows up in
her tower. I tried to do this by describing her lengthening hair as opposed to
actually stating her age in each section.
Luna’s hair grows long, down to her
Her hair coils at her feet, rope
lowered into a hole of light.
When she leans out the window, the rope
of Luna’s hair reaches halfway down the tower, tangling in the briar.
When Luna’s hair has grown past the
briars, she plaits it and cuts it off, tying one end around the foot of Talia’s
Each of these
sentences comes from a different section of the story. Even in my fairy-tale
world, hair doesn’t grow exceedingly fast, so a great deal of time has gone by
between the first sentence and the last.
Sometimes, maybe you just tell, not show.
When there are only so many words to go around, being short and sweet sometimes
means just telling your reader what happened so you can move on to more
important things. Here is an example from “Active Shooter.”
Bell gestures to the officer at the
back of the auditorium, who steps outside and rattles the doors. Lindy huddles
with Dan Barton, the gym teacher, below the stage. Phil and Carrie dive under
the piano, Kelly crouches behind the seats. The shooter pounds on the doors,
moving closer to the entrance at the front of the room.
I didn’t feel like I had enough space to get
very fancy with my language or go off on a metaphorical trip here. After all,
the piece is only 475 words! Instead, I chose to just say what happened. What
each of the teachers in the demonstration is doing does not contribute as much
to the larger issue I am dealing with in the piece — that of Lindy being
trapped in her engagement — so I felt like telling it quickly was the best way
to get it out and move on.
I hope these
techniques have helped you. I know they have helped me. Good luck trying them
in your writing!
Molly Lazer is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. A former associate editor at Marvel Comics, she currently teaches high school, acts, and directs plays outside of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette and Caesura.