Posts Tagged ‘Deanna Knippling’

Here and Gone in a Flash: How to Write Flash Fiction

So you’ve been thinking about writing flash fiction, but you’re not sure what to write…or, more importantly, what not to write! When you’re used to writing other lengths of fiction, taking on a flash fiction project can seem intimidating.

What is Flash FictionFlash Fiction, Here and gone in a flash.

Duotrope (an online database of writers’ markets) gives the upper limit as a thousand words, but individual markets vary widely on what they want for lengths.

So instead of dwelling on word counts, let’s go with the following to explain flash fiction:

  • A very short story, intended to be read in a few minutes (while standing in line, for example),
  • Which has a character, setting, and problem (a setup) that is resolved in some way at the end,
  • And which has as little else as possible.

Where flash fiction differs from a “prose poem” is that a prose poem can completely disregard character, setting, problem, or resolution and still be effective. Many prose poems are simply images, moments, or character sketches. (Any other differences between poetry and fiction are beyond the scope of this article!)

How to Structure Flash Fiction

When it comes to structuring flash fiction, there are no rules!

One of the most interesting parts about flash fiction is that it can have wildly different structures. Flash fiction can be six words long; flash fiction can be a grocery list; flash fiction can be a list of instructions; flash fiction can be nothing but dialog.
As long as you state or imply a character, setting, problem, and resolution, then your flash fiction piece will probably work.

How to Set Up Flash Fiction

Let’s look at the famous six-word story, usually attributed to Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

In a flash fiction story, you can either state or imply your setup, but you have to have one. Here’s the setup for this story:

  • Character: at least one parent.
  • Setting: here and now in a Western culture.
  • Problem: the death of a child.

None of these things are stated outright, only implied.

In a slightly longer story, W. Somerset Maugham’s “Appointment in Samarra,” the elements are stated fairly clearly:

“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”

  • Character: a merchant’s servant.
  • Setting: Bagdad (then Samarra).
  • Problem: fear of Death.

Some stories will state parts of their setup and imply others. Often, when I’m writing a piece of flash fiction, I’ll discover that I can cut a lot of words that are implied by some other element of the story.

How to Resolve Flash Fiction

A flash fiction piece also has to have a resolution. But that begs the question, “Exactly what is a resolution?” A resolution has two parts: it establishes how the problem in the setup is handled by the character, and it tells the reader how to feel about that. The reader can be made to feel happy, sad, conflicted, ironic, or even frustrated that the whole situation is sure to happen again.

Here are the resolutions in the examples above:

In “Baby Shoes…”:

  • The resolution is implied at the beginning of the story, in the words, “For sale:”
  • The problem of the death of the baby is handled practically and cynically.
  • The reader is supposed to feel sad for the baby, but sadder still for the parent, who can’t afford (whether emotionally or financially is not clear) to keep the shoes.

In “Appointment in Samarra”:

  • The resolution is at the end of the story, when Death explains that she was surprised to see the merchant’s servant in Bagdad, when she had an appointment with him in Samarra.
  • The problem of the servant’s fear of Death is resolved by the implication of Death finding him regardless.
  • The reader is supposed to feel a sense of irony, in that the servant’s attempt to flee Bagdad succeeded but his attempt to flee Death did not.

Note how the normal “rules” of fiction are overturned in both stories. In the “Baby Shoes…” story, the resolution is at the beginning; in “Appointment in Samarra,” there isn’t any character development. Writing flash fiction can be an excellent exercise in learning how to break rules.

Darkness in Flash Fiction

One caveat about flash fiction: it is almost always easier to write a dark or cynical flash fiction piece than a lighthearted one. This has more to do with psychology than anything else. Human brains are primed for bad news! It takes fewer words for most people to pick up on an implication of something going wrong than something going right.

One Important Tip

You can almost always improve a flash fiction story by trimming off the ending lines! Something I’ve often noticed and discussed with other writers of flash fiction is the need to cut just one more line—usually from the end—to make the story more powerful.

Recommendations for Study

As always, my recommendation for learning how to study a writing technique is to get out and read something that uses it—and then typing it in. Then with every piece I would ask myself, “What are the character, setting, problem, and resolution?” and “What is the structure and why?” It won’t be easy to answer those questions at first!

Here are some excellent flash fiction resources:

As a reader, what I love about flash fiction is that good flash fiction is very intense and takes risks that other stories cannot. As a writer, what I love is taking those risks. I invite you to thumb your nose at any sense of intimidation and try a few!


DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.

A Quick Primer on Pacing

What is Pacing?

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Pacing is the length at which a story is told: from the length of the words, to the length of the sentences, to the length of the paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and story itself. In order to match the content of a story to the way a story is told, it is necessary to control one’s pacing.
An epic saga cannot be best told in a flash fiction. It requires some word-count.

Being able to see pacing is like being able to see the Matrix. You’re looking at a substratum of story that most people don’t know is there—and once you see it, you can’t not see it.In order to match the content of a story to the way a story is told, it is necessary to control one’s pacing.

So, what is it?

Words

The words that you choose for your story can make it feel fast or slow.

Your selected vocabulary assists in determining whether your fiction gives a straightforward or a more convoluted impression.

The meaning of the words can be essentially the same. But the feeling that a reader gets from them is not. A lot of popular fiction uses a stripped-down vocabulary to give a feeling of directness and veracity; more literary fiction tends to use bigger words, so the readers feel like they’re chewing on some seriously high-fiber, good-for-you fiction.

Sentences

A short sentence is blunt.

A longer sentence can give the impression of being more persuasive, more thoughtful, more expansive; the kind of connections one makes between simple sentences as one links them together also expresses more or less formality (semi-colons are very formal); a lot of dashes and parenthesis and commas and even a run-on sentence all indicate something going on in the sentence that requires a moment’s thought: the speaker is lying, some sort of philosopher, or not thinking straight.

Paragraphs

Skim through the paragraphs above.
Again. Just look at the lengths of the paragraphs. Don’t read any of it.
The fact that the paragraphs aren’t the same length is important.
Which paragraphs look easier to read?
Which ones are going to get skimmed?
Which ones pop out?
Do they pop out because they’re short or because they’re different?
What happens to a reader when a series of paragraphs goes from short, to medium, to short again?
What happens when a series of paragraphs starts out short, then gets longer?
What about paragraphs that show contrast?
What about paragraphs that are all the same? Does it sound natural? Or does hitting the paragraph return at regulated intervals start to destroy the meaning of what is written within them? Is it like repeating the same word over and over again, until it becomes meaningless?

Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Pizza.

I highly recommend breaking up any concentrated monotonies of paragraphs. Just hit the return key a few times. It’s liberating.

Scenes, Chapters, and Sections

The various pieces and parts within a story have their own pacing. As you start to shift your attention from paragraphs to larger sections within a story, you may start to notice that the paragraphing and sentence lengths shift with the tension in the scene. For example, a long paragraph might contain a lot of details that the POV character casually notices. A series of short paragraphs might indicate a chase scene.
Different writers handle their pacing differently, but there are some patterns that tend to form:

  • Shorter pacing is faster pacing.
  • Longer pacing is slower pacing.
  • Medium pacing is often broken up by longer or shorter pacing, just to keep the writing from becoming soporific, which is a word that here means “sleep-inducing.”

Something to watch for is a moment when the pacing doesn’t seem to fit the content. This is often a hint to the reader that things are not what they seem.

Stories

Pick up a print copy of War and Peace sometime. Or The Lord of the Rings. Compare the physical weight to something like “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” by Shirley Jackson.
Some stories are longer than others.
Some stories have to be longer than others.

The length of stories in a genre is not about “what sells” so much as how much plot, at what pace, the readers expect to get from stories in a certain genre. Romance novels are often shorter than epic fantasies. When people read a romance, they only want so many obstacles before the lovers get together. Too many obstacles, and it starts to feel too much like real life. With epic fantasy, readers want to have a lot of obstacles. And whether there’s a literal map included in the book or not, they want to have traveled all over it. This requires more plot and therefore more obstacles.

  • In a romance, having too many subplots is an unwelcome distraction. The reader really only cares about the main lovers.
  • In an epic fantasy, you almost can’t have too many subplots or POV characters. The reader cares about the world itself, and sometimes you need than a single main character to show it all off.
  • Short stories only have the tiniest bit of plot. They often spend most of their time setting up a single conflict.
  • Sagas have so much plot that it often takes generations and entire continents for it to all play out.
  • A novella or short novel is often the story about how one stripped-down incident suggests a larger whole.
  • A series of mystery novels—in which the mystery novels, of whatever length but all of them roughly similar—is often the story about how history repeats itself but that, with intelligence, you can learn to cope with it.

The quickest way to learn pacing is to type some in. Find authors who have been publishing a lot of bestselling books over a lot of years, and start typing in words from a book you like that’s been published in the last ten years or so. Don’t start with Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. They’ll probably be over your head. (They’re generally over mine.) After you’ve read something you like, take a moment to ask yourself why the author chose the pacing they did. Some authors are good at distracting you from how they work their magic tricks, so you just end up getting sucked back into the story. Studying those writers is like attempting to solve the unsolvable.

That’s good. Those are the ones you want.


DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Littleton, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.

How to Put Together A Scene in Fiction – Part 2

[Note: This is Part-2 of a two part series. Click here for Part-1]

Endings

The end of a scene doesn’t really end anything, but tells the reader that there is more to come. If a character is literally hanging by their fingertips from the edge of a cliff at the end of the scene, it tells the reader that they will find out what happened on the cliff later—did the character fall or not? (Or, as in Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, we might find out something that isn’t actually true.)

Less dramatically, the end of a scene can introduce new information (and the reader will find out how the character deals with that later), suggest a new course of action (and the reader will see how that didn’t work out as planned later), or simply remind the reader of some item that was left in suspense from another scene (and the reader expects to see more of that soon).

Or all of the above, or some combination.

The only exception is the last scene, which instead tells the reader that the story is over, sorry. Even in a series with an overarching arc, you need to tell the reader that this section of the story is done—come back later!

Here are the five tools for ending a story that I know about:
• Happily ever after.
• Happy for now. (This is often used in series.)
• Doomed ever after.
• Doomed for now. (This is often used in series.)
• OMG IT NEVER ENDS. (This is used in stories where it is implied that the characters or society have learned nothing, and this will all happen again in some form or another; this really shouldn’t be used in series, as it indicates that the next iteration will be tiresome.)

A proper story ending wraps up all the plots and subplots in the story with one or another of these elements. The plots are often resolved in order of least importance to most importance, or external events to internal ones. The last image or line is often a reaffirmation of the main story-line’s ending (like the couple kissing in the back of the limo in Die Hard, surrounded by the ironic, snow-like fall of paperwork from the burning building).

If a story feels “comfortable,” it’s likely that the creators gave sufficient time to the beginning and ending elements of the story (The Princess Bride is a good example of this).

If you feel just plain lost in a story, it’s likely that the creators tried to jump straight into the middle, inserting beginning-type elements as laborious backstory and out-of-character explanations higgledy-piggledy throughout.

If you feel that a story was good but not entirely satisfying or you’re not sure what it was all about, it’s likely that the creators skimped on the endings: endings often sum up “what this all means” throughout the story, and check in on what is left to be accomplished.
Beginning writers want to rush to the middle. The conflict, they believe, is where a story is at. They want to start with conflict, garnish the story with conflict, and conclude with more conflict leading to a high-conflict sequel. GRAAAAHHH!

But, honestly, even something like trying to build BLTs with nothing but bacon gets to be dull after a while, no matter how much you like bacon. Ditto with the conflict. Take a look at how the long-term, best-selling pros write: they add structural elements to keep their endless streams of conflict from becoming dull, repetitive, and confusing.

The structural elements you add may seem to take an inordinate amount of words (at least, at first), but they will keep the reader anchored in your world (beginnings) and unable to put the book down (endings). Want to make a more exciting book? Ironically, you may need to spend more time with its least exciting elements.

Like everything with writing, learning how to write a good scene is a lot to take in. But if you’re having issues with not being a best-selling bajillionaire, it may be time to start!

—————-

*This is the Colorado Tesla Writers, a Facebook group of science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers at all levels. Contact me if you’re interested; you can be from anywhere, but we do have in-person meetings in the Denver metro area every month.

 


DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. She has been officially constrained from drinking Ovaltine per her doctor’s orders since a tragic incident involving a monopoly game, a blender, a cemetery, and a school play at age eight. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. If she told you which movie was based on her life, she’d have to kill you. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com

How to Put Together a Scene in Fiction – Part 1

[Note: this is part-1 of a two part series]

Something that a lot of writing books don’t teach beginnings writers is how to write a scene.
It sounds counter-intuitive. Aren’t scenes the basic building blocks of fiction?

But there are a lot of tools that you need to learn in order to write a scene at all: characters, dialogue, setting, conflict, motivation, how to write complete sentences…

The fact is, learning how to write well is a lot. A lot of everything. And a lot of the things that you can do sort of by instinct, you can’t do on purpose, at least not at first. So the question of “how to structure a scene” gets pushed back for “someday you’ll need to learn this…but not today.”

I reached the point of “someday” several years ago, in 2012. Taking the advice of longtime professional writer Dean Wesley Smith, I started noting down story structure and typing in what didn’t make sense (which was a lot).

What I’ve noticed is that almost every scene, barring those in some very experimental literary novels, uses very similar tools, repeated in different combinations. You may have heard of them: beginnings, middles, and endings.

There are a lot of tools that you need to learn in order to write a scene.

Beginnings

The beginning of a scene contains all the information the reader needs to know in order to comprehend the scene that follows. No more, and no less. This information includes the setting, character, and situation in enough detail that a reader can pick up the book after six months and be able to resume reading—with pleasure!
Because writers spend so much care and attention reading books, they tend to assume that other readers spend a lot of care and attention on reading. Alas, most readers only read about four books a year, or about one book every three months. And they forget stuff.

The beginning of a scene should establish new characters, new settings, and new situations in enough detail that the reader feels like they have left this reality and entered into the book. The beginning of a scene should also re-establish continuing characters, settings, and situations in enough detail that a reader who has put the book down can quickly get back up to speed.

There are three tricks to this:

• Use a lot of sensory detail from the character’s point of view.
• Only use the POV character’s observations and attitudes in the scene; nothing that fits the writer but not the character can remain.
• Don’t repeat the exact same details for re-establishing character, setting, and situation.

You don’t need to write a lot of details. If the details are accurate, consistent, based on concrete sense details (and not vague, lazy generalizations), and have variety, the details can quickly yank a wayward reader back into the story.

Middles

The middle of the scene contains the conflict. In the beginning, you tell the reader what sort of conflict to expect. In the middle, you carry out that conflict.

There are several tools you can use to carry out conflict. These are the ones I know about:
• The character tries to do something and fails. (“Try/fail” is often used as a blanket term for all of these types of conflict.)
• The character tries to do something, succeeds, and things still get worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
• The character tries to do something and is interrupted. (Interrupt.)
• The character tries to do something, but the outcome isn’t known yet. (Suspense.)

Each one of these elements, you will note, keeps the character on the hook somehow—and keeps the reader wanting to find out what will happen.

A scene can consist of one lengthy conflict, several shorter conflicts, one long and one short, and so on. A fight scene might have a dozen short conflicts as the fighters try, then discard, different tactics. A scene in which two old lovers try to convince each other that they don’t love each other anymore might be a dozen pages long.

If you’re paying close attention, you may notice that each separate conflict in a scene has its own beginning, middle, and end—the same way that in a good movie, you’ll see shots of characters standing around in the scene so you know who’s in the room and where. A fight scene that’s just a blur of weapons and movement gets to be old very quickly.

Click here for Part-2


DeAnna KnipplingDeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. She has been officially constrained from drinking Ovaltine per her doctor’s orders since a tragic incident involving a monopoly game, a blender, a cemetery, and a school play at age eight. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. If she told you which movie was based on her life, she’d have to kill you. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com