Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Write a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Story: Part 2: Three Parts of the Punch

(This post is part of a series. For part 1, click here.)

Not this punch, smartass.
The second strategy for putting together a great story in a tiny space has less to do with topic and more to do with structure and chronology. You have decided on your story of a character in conflict, but the full scope of any character’s story really starts when the character is born and doesn't end until the character dies. Your most crucial job as a writer, especially as a flash fiction writer but really as a writer of any length of story, is to decide where to start and where to end. In the span of your character’s life, there may be a dozen major moments -- crises of relationships, physical dangers, decisions, turning points, etc. Maybe each character has the potential in him or her for a dozen novels or five hundred flash fictions.

The important decision is which one to tell, and then you must get as close to that critical moment as possible. You may have heard the popular writing advice to begin as late as you can and end as soon as you can. This is especially true in micro form, because there is no time to waste building up to a climax or wrapping up with explanations. No one wants to read a brief summary of a story -- they want to read the story itself, and that means immediacy, scene, physicality, dialogue. Some short shorts sound like elevator pitches for entire novels -- don't do that to yourself. Narrow your focus to the exact moment of conflict, to the pivotal scene itself, whichever one encapsulates the whole story. Now you deliver something visceral and immediate to your reader, while still telling the whole piece.

The moment of impact. 
To help you break it down into even smaller bits, think of a punch. Maybe the act of punching someone is the climax to which your character has been building, or maybe a punch is just an example and your actual climax is a kiss or a declaration or an exit or a car crash or the clink of handcuffs or a foot landing on a mountain summit or a baby being born -- whatever. I’m asking you to take that climax and break it into three smaller parts, and to help us examine that, let’s look at a punch.

A punch can be divided into three moments: the swing, the impact, and the shock. Those three discrete intervals can each be their own stories. You can tell a story in the moment when the hand is still in swing, you can tell a story in the moment with the hand and the face connect, and you can tell a story in the moment when the head is kicked back, reeling.

Check the ripples! That's shock.
When you take any climax and divide it like this, interesting things happen. For one thing, point of view becomes very important and clear. In the punch example, your story is of “the swing” is very different depending on whether you’re telling the story of the person punching or the person anticipating the pain. Likewise “the shock” would be very different. Examining your choices about where to position your narrative camera, you’ll find the most minute changes bring about interesting reverberations in your story.

So when you’re getting down to the business of writing a tiny story, I recommend you examine your scope. First, the character’s whole life. Second, the moment of climax you want to illustrate. Third, within that climax, which of the sections you want to focus on -- the swing, the impact, or the shock?

Back to Part 1 | On to Part 3
This spring, I am judging the Fly-By Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Contest, a writing contest to benefit Up Center Books. Writers in the Hampton Roads area will submit their best science-fiction-themed flash fiction to be judged first by instructors at The Muse Writing Center and then by me. Winners will win a writing class at The Muse, a nifty prize basket, and will share the microphone with me at the launch of the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine, on July 10th, at Up Center Books. To encourage college students and adult writers who are tackling this challenge, and to give some guidance and support to teachers and parents who may be working with a younger child, I created this three part guide to explain a few (of many!) possible ways to approach writing a sci-fi short.


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