|Sci-fi Version: "For sale: Space suit. Never worn."|
True, writing 500 words is not hard. But what makes a story a story? What elevates your 500 words from the realm of the vignette or scene or sketch to the level of an actual short story? A reader can tell the difference between a paragraph and a piece of fiction -- there’s something about a story that feels complete, finished, whole, no matter how short it is.
This something is conflict. Conflict can be a fistfight or an internal battle, but either way it is struggle -- the struggle to move, either physically or emotionally, from point A to point B. So a story is a fight to move, no matter how minute the obstacle and no matter how infinitesimal the motion. That’s what makes it whole.
Conflict can be tricky to set up even in a long form short story, and sci-fi conflict can be even more tricky. You may find yourself imagining world-building that takes chapters, alien races that must be described in glorious detail, histories of space battles with implications that span thousands of years. The idea of condensing it into the space of 500 words seems laughable. But here are three ways you can ignite your story in a very tiny space, and a few secrets to help you get it firing immediately. (Parts 2 and 3 are linked below.)
#1. THE FISH OUT OF WATER
When sci-fi works best, the most alien of situations relate to very familiar human experiences. One category of conflict that is instantly relatable and needs very little wordy explanation is the fish out of water.
|Get your jungle character into this neighborhood.|
On the most obvious level, this can be physical. Take a character who’s used to the desert and put him on a snowy planet. Take a character who breathes water and put him on a mountain (literally the fish out of water). A city dweller in the country, a nocturnal person forced out in the day, a cave dweller on the plains. Instant conflict, just add physical discomfort, the urgent need to adapt, survive, on a primal level.
|Goodbye, city life!|
|Your character misses his lonely hermitage.|
Science fiction or speculative fiction is perfect for this type of set-up. Time travel, interplanetary travel, alien species, and the pervasive themes of exploration and discovery lead to many of these juxtapositions -- showing a moment of the resulting conflict can be just enough story to fill up a short short.
In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about strategy #2: Find Three Parts of the Peak.
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.