by Wina Puangco
Hi, everyone! This is Wina Puangco. I write stories and put together zines (and run MoarBooks). Today, I’m taking over a little corner of your cyber reading space with Crossed Wires: a tiny segment for Pillow Talk this month on (the most commonly) misunderstood genres of literature, and the things we mistake them for which hamper how well we’re able to read and write them.
In the next two weeks, you can expect to see a little something on sci-fi and fantasy. For now, here is a little something on short, short fiction.
Short, short fiction, or tiny fiction, as I like to call it, is probably the most abused form of fiction there is—search for #flashfic on Tumblr, and you will never take the term endless scrolling so literally ever again.
The thing about this genre is that everybody thinks they can do it. Not that they can’t, with a little more care, and attention, but people expect it to be “easy” because it is short, and that leads to work that is sloppy, cryptic and cliche.
Below is a list of common misconceptions that we can work on correcting so we can come up with tiny fiction that resonates.
1. Short short fiction is easier to write.
What is easier: to win someone over with a full night of dinner, drinks and dancing or to win someone over in the span of a 15-minute cab ride?
Stories have their own rules with regard to time and space. In the tiny story, one’s word-time and word-space is limited, so it is often more difficult to write a good tiny story because you have to be more careful with your words. You have less room to be clumsy. This is the most common thing I think people make: they choose tiny fiction on no premise other than convenience and therefore don’t maximize the form.
One good example of how much you can do with tiny fiction if you pay attention to word choice is Lydia Davis’s “The Dog Hair.” Every detail is there for a reason and is chosen to make as much movement as possible, boosting the narrative quality of the work. In tiny fiction, the nuances are always highlighted: the difference between the economic use of gone, and wasteful employment of run over by a tricycle become magnified.
2. Short short fiction must be limited to one setting.
This is (one of the reasons) why I will never refer to tiny fiction as flash fiction. Flash fiction seems to have given up even before it’s even started, as if to say, “This is going to be short, so don’t expect much.” It aims to not really tell a story, but to give you a glimpse of what could be a story. It’s not a short film, it’s a trailer.
With tiny fiction, you can employ so many devices to move through time, and space: play around with sentences, use parentheticals, be clever with homonyms and homographs. Perhaps think of it as a shipwreck in a bottle, miniature, rather than incomplete.
Take, for instance, Sheila Heti’s “The Girl Who Was Blind All The Time,” wherein transitions between time and place are done both seamlessly and simply, using sentence construction to establish not just the when and where, but also the how, why, to what extent of a situation.
3. Short short fiction must be simple plot-wise.
In the same vein as the previous point, a small story doesn’t have to be a simple one. Don’t get me wrong, there is a line between a complex story and an unnecessarily complicated one. But where most attempts at tiny fiction fail is that they don’t employ a lot of imagination. Somehow, instead of getting a small, beautiful, dense marble, we are given watery orange juice made from powder.
A good example of a story that employs creativity within a plot, given a limited number of words is “The Assasins of Summer,” from the multimedia series Full of Turquoise and Light by Lucy Cahill. Instead of confining the story to a long-winded plot, it takes the plot and wraps it around itself: like rope in a bottle.
4. Short short fiction must be overtly emotive.
When writing tiny fiction, restraint is very important. It is what makes the difference between something Ernest Hemingway would write and a Hallmark card.
Most people who write tiny fiction seem afraid of two things: 1) not getting their point across and 2) struggling with actually conveying that point. The result is work that reads overly dramatic in an attempt to make the reader feel something. Just as you cannot make someone love you, you cannot make someone feel something; you can only set the trap.
Speaking of Hemingway, his fabled six-word short story is proof that restraint is often the best path to emotiveness.
5. Short short fiction must employ bigger words to make up for its brevity.
This one seems self-explanatory but you would be surprised at how often it happens. In an attempt to smush everything into 500 words or less, the tendency is often to choose words with the most volume to the point of obfuscating the entire story. The best words are not always the biggest ones. I’d like to end this article with another piece from Lydia Davis called “The Bad Novel.” It is short, uses no words you would have to consult the dictionary for, and yet it is ingenious in its capacity to deliver feeling and insight.
Thanks for sitting with us through this first edition of Crossed Wires here on Pillow Talk! We’ll see you next Tuesday with a post from Noel Villa on common misconceptions about Science Fiction.
Anything to share? :)