Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Write a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction Story: Part 3: The Crack in the Wall


(This post is part of a series. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.) 

I have one more tip for those of you who are writing sci-fi flash fiction, maybe even entering the Fly-By Sci-Fi contest to benefit Up Center Books this summer. This one may help you find a story that’s big enough to be significant and affecting, and small enough to be told in two pages, or 500 words. In the last part of this series, I focused on dissecting the climax, but now I want to look at the beginning of the story. The full plot arc of a novel has an inciting incident at one end and a climax at the other -- consider that you can tell your flash fiction from either end.

Yep, she's cracked.
When a writer thinks of when to start her story, it’s a good idea to look for firsts or lasts -- the first time something happened, or the last straw. You always want to launch your story on a day that violates the status quo, a day unlike any other, when something pushes your character to action and changes his/her world forever. When you’re writing micro-fiction, you can tell a whole story around just that first moment, when the change is initiated.

So how can a day be unlike any other? There are tons of ways -- tornado, plague, discovery, a lost tooth, , but here’s one that’s uniquely suited for the sci-fi milieu: it's a very tiny reversal that I'm calling the crack in the wall. It’s the very moment when good turns to bad, when safe turns to dangerous, when fixed turns to broken. This moment can be just small enough to be a perfect subject for flash fiction.

Think of a huge strong dam, holding back megatons of water, and imagine the moment that the very first crack is born.

Think of an impenetrable planetary shield, which keeps the inhabitants absolutely safe from all contact with the outside world, and imagine the moment that one small first particle (or person) gets through.

Good technology is good, until it's not. Then it kills you.
Think of a completely reliable piece of technology, that is unswervingly good and helpful and trustworthy, and imagine the moment that it first malfunctions, and wounds.

Think of a person who has been completely moral, just, and upstanding for her whole life, and imagine that first moment that she sins.

I’m talking about a crack in the metaphorical wall. The first, tiny crack. Sometimes in that first moment, the whole story is encapsulated, and that’s the kind of subject I’m looking for in flash fiction. Give me that first tiny crack and 500 words that let me see it, and my brain can fill in the rest of the fissure, the crumbling, the devastation. Give me that first crime, and my imagination can supply the dissolution, the aftermath, the ending.

You might also find yourself imagining sort of the opposite of a crack -- a tiny reversal that takes a character from devastation to redemption. The first good thing that happens. The first motion toward salvation. The first failure of an evil mechanism, when hope is born. The first friendly alien in a galaxy of wickedness. Writing in this direction could have the same effect -- a suggestion of the future that leads the reader to the beginning of the story.

Much of flash fiction’s value comes from what you say, but much of it comes from what you do not say, the necessary gaps you create that your reader fills in with her own extrapolation. And if you do it right, a short fiction can imply a whole novel’s worth of material, exploding, like a flash, in the reader’s brain. Good luck!



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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