Tag: On Implication

Tell Me A (Very Short) Story

Black and white image of a woman with writing in black ink on her back

Skin Writing II by Matou Malin

Welcome to the second installment of my pre-Eroticon, I-Had-More-Material-Than-Will-Fit-In-The-Session series. This one is on flash fiction and plot. Or, more, specifically, does flash fiction need to have a plot?

Opinions vary (sometimes violently), but my answer to this question is yes. And no. Flash is a wily thing.

Before I can dig into my non-response properly, it’s important to look at what, exactly, “plot” means.

Generally speaking, plot is defined as a story’s rising and falling action, or what’s typically called a narrative arc. Implicit in that understanding is the assumption that a traditional narrative arc is one of a story’s baseline requirements. In other words, it needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. If it doesn’t, it’s something else—a vignette, a scene, a prose poem, but not a “proper story”.

So, given all that, what’s the difference between flash fiction, (which often doesn’t contain a clean narrative arc), and, say, a prose poem?

It’s a thin line, but the difference is in the fact that fiction, unlike poetry, is an inherently temporal form – it’s rooted in a particular time and place. By contrast, a prose poem is, essentially, an observation, which means that, as prescient as the observation might be, it has a universal quality that prevents it from anchoring itself to a specific, temporal space.

Stories, unlike prose poems, are populated by characters with needs and motivations, and those characters need to exist somewhere. That somewhere (even if it’s just an empty room in an unknown year) implies physical existence, the passage of time and changes in circumstance. Stories have characters and characters have needs, which means that something will change, or fail to in a meaningful way. That process is dynamic, and the dynamic movement from point A to point B is what forms a narrative.

This tinkers with the traditional notion of plot, but less so than you’d think. It doesn’t matter if the change happens on the grand scale or unfolds quietly in a single page. What matters is that the change is rooted in a character’s longing. It can be as broad as trying to save the world, or as subtle wanting to get out of bed and not being able to. If there’s need there’s change and that naturally forms plot.

And, in the end, that’s all plot really is—a character pursuing a need. Or, to put it more dramatically, plot is the portrait of a character’s desire—how they pursue it, how it’s  thwarted, and how (or if) it’s resolved. That resolution of a desire usually comes in the form of an epiphany—a realization that signals a pivot in the character’s outlook or circumstance. That pivot is the change that represents movement through a set of temporal circumstances, i.e.: the plot.

The journey from challenge to resolution has acres of room to breathe in novels. It has the opposite in flash fiction. But just because a character’s longing can’t unfold in epic or obvious ways doesn’t mean it’s not there.

While the brevity required in short, short fiction doesn’t often allow for a “fully developed plot”, flash fiction has the luxury of taking a microscope to the thwarted desires and revelations that drive traditional narrative forms. Flash fiction may appear to be inherently “plotless”, but if there is a character at the heart of it, and that character has a need, then that story has the DNA of plot and can, quite comfortably, be considered proper fiction.

Now, I’m going to be wild and crazy and say something that a lot of people would disagree with. I don’t think flash fiction has to have a plot, even in DNA form. That said, it also can’t just shuffle around without a point or purpose.

Monologues, vignettes, scenes and sketches, like prose poetry, are driven (generally speaking) by the universal observations I mentioned earlier. While some would disagree with my taking an inclusive view, I believe that these are also legitimate forms of storytelling because they achieve through observation what plot does through desire and conflict—they reflect an essential human truth or condition.

When you strip it down, that’s what fiction is, regardless of length. It’s a made-up story that reflects an essential human truth. That’s why characters in flash fiction are more important than a beginning, middle and end. The truth can be anything from desperately wanting to fuck your ex, to grieving the loss of a child. Whether it happens through observation, or the temporally specific plot movements, fiction reflects what it is to be a person in the world. Whether it’s a novel or a paragraph, that’s what fiction does.

So, does flash fiction need a plot?

It would be more useful to ask if flash fiction can accommodate a plot, and the answer to that is yes. But flash can also accommodate breathless observation, devastating reflection and humanity in all of it glorious, filthy complexity, and, in the end, they serve the same function as plot.

We are humans, and humans are driven by desire. Whether that desire is for a glass of water or the golden fleece, longing, wanting and needing are fundamental human conditions. As long as a story taps into what it is to be fundamentally human, it’s storytelling and it’s powerful, regardless of length.

Other Eroticon-Inspired Writer Posts

On Implication

What You Owe the Reader

On Implication

Repeating image of hands overlapping against a black and white back drop.

Hands, Hands…Horst P. Horst (New York, 1941)

It’s February, which means Eroticon is less than a month away (and shining like a light on the horizon), so I’ve started pulling my session notes together. The subject of my session is sex in flash fiction or, more specifically, how to write sex that turns the reader on reader on and lends a story impact, weight and relevance.

In writing as in life, sex is powerful on multiple levels. Knowing how to play with those levels makes for fiction that resonates—not just sexually, but emotionally and psychologically, as well. It’s one of my favorite writerish things to talk about, mostly because there’s so much to say—far more than I could ever fit into 55 minutes.

Rather than try to fit the ocean in a teacup, I figured I’d write a small series of posts on some of the things I’d flesh out a bit more if I were hosting a series of workshops, rather than a single session. It also has the nice, inclusive side effect of opening up the topic for those who aren’t going to Eroticon this year.

Side note: While the session is going to touch lightly on all of this, these posts are in no way a prerequisite. The only prerequisite I have is that you bring an open mind and a willingness to experiment in whatever way suits your style and interests.

So, back to keeping your writing tight. For this post, I want to talk about implication, which is as important in fiction as it is in flirting, (and, as any good flirt can tell you, worlds of filthy stuff can be said between the squeaky-clean lines). It’s part of something called “negative space”, which I’ll get into more during the session. For now, I want to focus on what implication has to do with connecting to the reader.

Sex and flash fiction were made for each other, largely because, like horror (or any other psychologically driven genre), the best erotic writing has a visceral impact. A restricted word count forces every element to count, which makes for a story that packs a hard punch. While a 250-word limit might sound crazy-pants, it’s actually an opportunity to nail your reader down on a deep, visceral level. But, in order to make that work, you’ve got to do something first. You’ve got to trust the reader. Here’s what I mean.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this:

They walk hip to hip, knuckles brushing, as they measure their potential in the rhythm of their feet..

I wrote that sentence in response to someone’s assertion that it’s impossible to write a “proper story” in less than 20 words because you can’t “trust the reader to get it”. Whether or not this qualifies as a “proper story” is a matter of opinion—some people like a clear beginning, middle and end, so if that’s what you’re after, it may not be your cup of tea. The idea of trusting the reader though, that’s something I have definite feelings on.

The story in that sentence comes more from implication than actual text. These two people are in sync enough to walk naturally together, but they aren’t yet sure of their potential as a couple. It’s a very specific moment in a relationship—the exploration of an unspoken line. Will they continue on together, or not? I know what I think is going to happen, but what I think isn’t the point.

That’s where trusting the reader comes in.

The reader’s only job is to read – not correctly interpret the “true” meaning of a story, as laid out by the author with loving precision. While I do believe that the author’s intention is important, I don’t believe the reader is obliged to treat it like the word of an authorial god.

What an author intends shapes a story. That’s why intention is important—it lends the writer direction and purpose. It is not, however, the only determinant of a story’s impact. Impact comes not only from the writing, but from how the reader engages it. It’s about making and maintaining a connection…sort of like flirting.

While you definitely don’t want your motives misinterpreted (flirting is one thing, but being a creeper is another), the best way to facilitate a natural connection is to be aware of the person you’re talking to. So, rather than trusting the reader to “get it”, it’s much more productive to invite their interest. Implication is one really efficient, really effective way to do that.

A writer controls the writing process. What a writer can’t control is how a story gets read because every, single reader will bring something different to it. And that’s okay. That’s how connections are made. That’s how you get a story that has a secret, powerful, visceral impact on someone other than yourself. All you have to do is leave a little blank space between the lines, and let the reader fill it in.

That’s how you get out of the way, and let the reader engage your work on their terms. When they do, it’s magic, like crazy chemistry on a first date. It means they’re trusting you enough to let you take them somewhere, anywhere, even places you don’t know about. It means they’re with you, no matter where it leads.

© 2017 Malin James

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