Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

A Remedy for When You’re Stuck: Inserting the Unexpected Detail

unexpectedOne of the many reasons we find ourselves getting “stuck” when drafting a new story is that we have unwittingly written ourselves into a very boring place. How did this happen? We had such a great idea!

The answer likely resides in your descriptions. 

Consider your “go-to” descriptions of settings and characters. What do you think of when you see the words “hospital room” for example?

“antiseptic” smells

the beeping monitors

a nurse in a “starched white uniform” (not sure they even wear those anymore!)

How about a waitress in a diner?

She’s wearing a name tag, of course. Maybe her name is Candy. She has a pencil behind her ear and she is chewing, no “smacking” a piece of gum. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? These descriptions write themselves. In the process of drafting, if you find yourself falling into these clichés, the rest of the writing will likely follow suit. You begin to bore yourself.

I urge you to make every single part of your flash fiction so fresh and new and interesting that your reader (or slush pile reader) sits up and takes notice from beginning to end. With fewer words at your disposal, the description you do include needs to be strong, palpable, and carry a lot of emotional or narrative weight.

With this in mind, you should also consider how you describe ordinary things. Can you look at those things with fresh eyes? In Susan Minot’s connected collection of stories, “Monkeys,” she shows a character plunking down a crumpled up napkin and saying that it “bloomed” on the table. Can you see that? I can and it’s perfect. What a thrilling, fresh description!

The following is an exercise I use in my online workshop, Fast Flash, and it always results in strong, fresh, original pieces of writing that surprise even the writers themselves. We writers need ways to overcome our natural tendency to write scenes in the way they have always been written. This exercise is designed to give you a new way in to your material.

I want you to imagine a scene in a commonplace setting. One you’ve seen in fiction many times. A hospital room, a bar, a dining room, a park, a school yard, whatever. No doubt your brain already conjures up certain images and descriptions just by reading those words.

Now, I want you to insert some unexpected detail. Don’t give this too much thought and don’t worry about making sense, just insert the strange detail.

Examples: a clown at the train station, a daisy growing out of the sidewalk, an old man walking backwards, an animal in a hospital room, etc. 

Perhaps the odd detail will drive the scene forward or perhaps it will remain in the background, but what this exercise does is trick your brain into writing a scene in that setting that has, I promise you, never been written before. You have given yourself permission to write outside the box. You have “primed the pump” of your subconscious and now all bets are off.

***Consider also describing something ordinary within your setting in an extraordinary way (like the napkin that “bloomed” in the Susan Minot story).

You might also try this on a story you’ve been stuck on! Have fun!

~Kathy

 

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

To Segment or Not to Segment + An Exercise for Creating a Flash Mosaic

Increasingly employed in flash fiction, the mosaic or fragmented form makes effective use of white space. It asks the reader to collaborate in a sense, filling in the gaps or making connections. There are jumps in time, jumps in point of view. It’s a story told in pieces that somehow form a cohesive whole. It’s useful when attempting to tell a larger story, rather than a moment in time. I love this structure because it feels the closest to how my mind works. Memories in snapshots. My own brain’s attempt to make sense of only particles, spread out over time.

So imagine a series of fragments or pieces that are loosely connected (by theme, character, image, story, etc.). The notion of time is very fluid. I believe that the mosaic is an even looser form than segmentation as the individual pieces in a mosaic can be, well, anything. A letter or list or a poem. Think of mosaics in the visual arts, how they often use different materials and textures.

But does segmenting always work? What is lost and what is gained by employing this structure in flash fiction?

The structure suits flash fiction very well in that it eliminates the use of transitions, bridges from scene to scene, and therefore results in fewer words–a goal of flash fiction.

The absence of transitions creates a snapshot effect. The reader has to engage with the writer to create story within the white space. The writer is playing with the reader’s subconscious, which of course differs from reader to reader. This, to me, is what makes flash so exciting to read and to write. The individual snapshots carry more weight, or ought to carry more weight, if they’re to be effective.

Also, segmented structure allows a flash to cover a broader expanse of time. See how masterfully Jeff Landon employs this structure in a tender/funny/sad story of a relationship spanning many years in “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace” published in Smokelong Quarterly. 

But what is lost when we write in fragments? I would say a gentle flow or build. Flash fiction doesn’t always need to be “punchy” or “sharp” (many would disagree with me on this!). There are times when you want something smoother, slower even. Or you want to stay in one particular moment or scene. Segmenting in this case would diffuse the moment and nothing, nothing in flash fiction should ever be diffused.

Here is a quick way to create your own flash mosaic:

First, write down 3 of your most vivid dreams. If you aren’t a person who remembers your dreams, switch this out for 3 quick descriptions of photographs (real or made up).

Now, write 3 real or made up incidents from your life (or a character’s life), from 3 different decades of their life.

You now have 6 brief vignettes. Take these and weave them, alternating dreams (or photographs) and memories.

See what happens if you write them all in present tense, effectively suspending all sense of the passage of time.

See what happens if you don’t identify the dreams as dreams, but write them “straight.” This will give your mosaic a sense of surreality.

See what happens if you give each vignette its own subtitle.

As an example of what can be achieved with this exercise, here is a piece of my own, published in Threadcount:

“A Room with Many Small Beds”

The result may be flash memoir or you may completely fictionalize your piece. If this gets your  pen flowing, keep going with it. See where it takes you!

 

Nancy Stohlman, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Bribing the Muse: On Your Mark, Get Set…

Sometimes our stories fall flat, without that “pop” of tension. One great way to create urgency in a flash fiction story is by using another constraint: Time.

timed_test_Medium

For almost a decade now, all my college classes have begun with a 10-minute timed writing. Timed writing is nothing new. We know that it helps us transition us into the writing space, like stretching before a workout. We know that it forces us to stay present and dig deeper—writing past where we might have naturally given up. And we know that keeping the pen moving quickly, without crossing things out or rereading, is a great way to evade the internal critic and uncover fresh ideas.

But I discovered something else through years of this practice: 10 minutes of writing without stopping is also the perfect amount of time to draft a flash fiction story idea from start to finish.

It makes sense: Flash fiction is defined by a (word) constraint, so why not create under a time constraint? Having that clock ticking while you furiously try to reach the end of an idea gives the piece a natural sense of urgency. And writing from the beginning to the end in one sitting also creates a sense of continuity—we see the end coming as we embark on the journey.

I do most of my timed writings longhand, scribbling. But it works with typing as well. And you can use a timed writing in many ways. For instance, you can:

  • Set the timer while writing to a prompt.
  • Set the timer when you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to write about.
  • Set the timer and rewrite a “flat” story from scratch while the clock chases you to the finish line (my favorite)

And as a daily practice it’s even better.

Besides, you can do anything for 10 mins, right?

Regardless of how you use it, a 10-minute burst of writing can break you through resistance and lethargy. And creating something to push against allows inspiration to bulge and balloon in interesting and unexpected ways.

~Nancy

(How did it work for you? Share in the comments below!)

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

A Prompt for When You’re Stuck: Give Your Character the Microphone

Often if we’re stuck on a piece of writing it’s because we’re tamping down some essential voice that is screaming (or whispering urgently) to get out. It’s useful to just allow that character to talk. So today I’d like you to write a MONOLOGUE. You may quickly set the scene for this monologue, but I want the bulk of your flash to be one person talking to an audience of one or more. Approach this any way you like. Your character may be a space alien or an animal or a child or a potato chip. Just give them the floor, the microphone, the podium, the flashlight around the campfire.

Examples of monologues:

Your character wants to make a case for something.

Your character wants to rally the troops against an enemy.

Your character wants to profess her love (or her hate).

Your character wants to defend herself.

Your character has a bone to pick.

Your character goes on a rant.

Your character wants a job.

Your character is simply telling a fascinating story.

Does this monologue qualify as a story? Remember my three essentials to flash fiction: Emotion, Movement, and Resonance. How you get there doesn’t much matter as long as you demonstrate these three. Write quickly without judgment and you will soon have a fresh draft that may surprise you!

Aim for 500 words or fewer! Go!

For inspiration here’s a great one, Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator:

Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

Interrogating Your Scenes: A Revision Exercise

interrogation room

According to Jordan Rosenfeld, author of the wonderful Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time :

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

As a storytelling unit, your scenes must work. The following is a revision exercise aimed at honing your scenes and “keeping them honest.”

Go back and read a story or flash that is still in early draft phase. Locate ONE scene that you’d like to make more powerful or effective. In flash fiction that one scene may actually be your entire story (and note that a single scene does NOT a flash make unless it has some larger significance or resonance beyond the confines of that scene).

It’s often extremely useful to read a scene aloud so that you can “hear” where it falters.

Now ask the following questions of your scene:

Does the scene capture your reader’s attention?

Is the scene played out dramatically, i.e. with action and dialogue, perhaps in a new setting? You need to provide your reader with an experience, not a lecture.

Could more sensory detail be included to bring the reader into the scene? Do we have a sense of the characters inhabiting a specific space? (avoid “talking heads” syndrome)

What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene? How is the story moved along? (i.e., does the scene create movement in the story, however subtle?)

What does your character want at the beginning of this scene? Think of this as the scene’s “engine.”

Is there any complication or trouble in this scene? If not, add some!

And how does your character respond to this complication or trouble? This is a great way to show us who she is.

Look at the end of the scene. Does your reader now know more about the characters? Is she compelled to keep reading?

Could the dialogue be made sharper? Try cutting way back and see what it does for your scene. Avoid “ping pong” dialogue where every question is answered and it feels more like an interview than a conversation. Ruthlessly cut any “chatty” dialogue that doesn’t move the scene.

Are you making use of subtext? Using body language? Is there anything interestingly strange or out of place here? Sometimes adding an unexpected detail enlivens a scene and primes your brain to think outside the box.

Finally, see what happens to the overall story if you cut the scene entirely. Remember flash fiction writers: Interesting things can happen in the white space!

~Kathy