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When Writing Less is More

March 23, 2009

I’m verbose – both on the page and in person.

Through necessity I’m learning to be expedient with my non fiction writing – one of the weekly columns that I write confines me to 400-600 words.  Part of me feels sad that increasingly non fiction is being compressed into micro flashes of information. I feel an intellectual tic at this; that the internet is dumbing down and debasing the art of writing a meaningful article, feeding the three second attention that seems to be spreading outward from Generation Y.

But what does it mean for fiction? Can fiction be short and sweet – and work? Be meaningful? Engaging?

Flash fiction, also known at sudden fiction, micro fiction, micro-story, postcard fiction and more recently fast fiction, is increasing in popularity among writers of all ages and genres.  Flash fiction, considered to be works less than 1000 words, is not new. The roots of this writing style go back to Aespos Fables and embraced by such diverse literary greats as Arthur C Clarke and Franz Kafta. But it has come into its own with the advent of the internet.

Flash/fast fiction reflecting its non fiction cousin is coming with leaner word counts – mirrored by the growing number of submission guidelines with 500 word limits, both for competitions and publishing. Anyone who has written a meaningful and compelling story within that limited word count  knows how difficult, but fulfilling, it can be to achieve. It is definitely something to consider to push our boundaries as writers.

What if we hone it down further?

Last year I completed an exercise from Brian Kiteley’s wonderful book The 3am Epiphany: uncommon writing exercises that instructed the writer to compile a character’s life story in 100 words. A hundred words forces you to get to the crux of your character and to decide what is and isn’t important in your character’s back story. It is a good place to start when you are getting to know a character. Again, another good exercise in boundary pushing.

But what if a story was just one sentence long?

One Sentence is a brilliant concept site that gives people an opportunity to share a true story in one sentence.  The site says it is:

… an experiment in brevity. Most of the best stories that we tell from our lives have one really, really good part that make the rest of the boring story worth it.

The challenge of One Sentence is to tell the most interesting or poignant story possible in the least amount of words and reading the entries there is certainly food for thought, both as a collector and creator of stories. And the thing is, whether we like it or not, there is an autobiographical footprint in every piece of fiction we create – some more obvious than others. Is this where our “one sentence” resides in our fiction?

Inspired by the One Sentence concept, my challenge to you this week is to write a piece of fiction in one sentence. Is it possible?

4 Comments
  1. March 23, 2009 3:30 am

    Wow, one sentence is a real challenge.

    I actually find flash fiction easier than longer fiction. I love the medium actually but it’s only now that I’m considering this kind of stuff publishable instead of just mucking around.

  2. March 23, 2009 4:37 am

    Well, there is Ernest Hemmingway’s (in)famous and possibly apocryphal six word story:

    For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

    And the famous joke about the one sentence story which has all the necessary ingredients of fiction – mystery, religion and sex:

    My God, I’m pregnant, I wonder who the father is?

    But yes, I have a rather prolix style, and you know how difficult I found that short story you edited for me for the competition I entered recently.

    Brevity and simplicity might help people who lack sufficient background knowledge of a subject, but it can cause issues when you then try to explain things in greater depth, as the truth is never quite as simple as a 250 word press summary…

  3. March 23, 2009 7:17 am

    My writing style, in a word, is “wordy”. I like to write things very conversationally and I’m more than willing to throw a lot of words in just to get around to one single phrase or pun or comment that I think is interesting. I do not throw in extra adjectives or ‘high vocabulary’ just for the sake of putting them in, though, because I, personally, find it distracting.

    I have, at times, written to a word count limit and I always find it difficult. Usually the difficulty is from the fact that I fret over being limited to so few words; the anxiety from that usually translates into a few hundred extra words for some reason and then I spend a lot of time cutting it down and editing out the extra words that stemmed from the word-limit anxiety.

    I understand the charm and beauty and even the excitement of a really short and well done piece and have written a few that I think fit that category. However, my opinion is that if a piece feels rushed or terse because of the wordcount limit, then it is less accessible and less enjoyable to the readers, leaving them feeling as anxious as the author may have felt while writing it.

    I find it interesting, too, that the One Sentence website uses five sentences to describe what they’re doing. I think they could have been more brief.

  4. March 23, 2009 4:05 pm

    For me, having limited words, as opposed to limited time (when writing workshops or writer’s aid books ask you to write for a period of time without taking pencil off the page, etc) provokes more powerful writing. While I do see the benefit, in the spirit of “write anything” and just getting the blood and ink flowing, of writing without stopping or editing for some period of time, I find that being conscious of length utilizes the writing part of my brain. I know that, as “flash fiction” has gotten more popular, there is a backlash, saying that the writing is annoyingly “clever;” recently a “6 Word Memoirs” compilation was published, and jezebel.com derided it. But I enjoy it. The “400 words” website and magazine was intriguing and I found the quality of writing, brief as it was, to be extremely high. Something about parsing down the excess gets down to the truth, which makes fiction reverberate more. Someone above referenced Hemingway’s six word story, but I think in all of his fiction, which he referred to in “A Moveable Feast,” was motivated by distilling the prose until it contained just the truth.
    At any rate, I had to write a comment because you referred to Brian Kiteley’s “3 AM Epiphany,” and I just started a blog entirely inspired by the prompts in that book! I am posting my responses to all of his prompts. I was having trouble following through on my writing habits, and then I got the idea of posting what I’m writing; I thought that by sticking to the prompts in the book, I’d have at least some structure and methodology.
    Finally, excellent post!

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