Right. Part 3. ‘Bout to smash it.
(Just arrived from a random Google/link? Check out the rest of our Intro to Short Fiction series here.)
Have you written down your anecdote from the last exercise? Excellent. Now put it aside for a minute and have a think about that fundamental human truth that lies at the core of every story.
Think about the last short story or novel you read – chances are you can summarise its ‘truth’ pretty easily with a bit of noggin-work. Such as:
It’s a story about the loneliness of motherhood.
It’s a story about how we deal with grief.
It’s a story about the thrill of a chance encounter.
It’s a story about feeling trapped inside our own bodies.
It’s a story about the fear of failure.
It’s okay to use vague and vast concepts here – because that’s the point. With the glorious variety of short fiction you can write a hundred thousand stories about the same damn thing and it’ll be different every time.
Take these three fine examples, of varying lengths, all (arguably) riffing around the subjects of belonging; of home.
Those Were The Days by Mazin Saleem
Those were the days when instead of asking strangers, “Where are you from?” you’d ask, “Where have you been?” then sigh at the answer and look back at the mud, which in the dry season was like flaky compacted leaves and in the wet season like sheets of brown paint sliding past you, making you feel dizzy like when you went paddling in the sea and it rushed back through your feet: “This dead city, that dead city.”
(First published in the Open Pen Anthology)
I am the Painter’s Daughter by Kit de Waal
(I am the Painter’s Daughter won 2nd prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction 2014 and first appeared in Issue 5 of Bare Fiction Magazine)
My Jesus Year by Laura Catherine Brown
(First published in The Open Bar / Tin House, 2016)
Will you lookit that? Three totally different stories in every possible way – form, structure, voice, tone, perspective, location, character – and yet each one says something about the see-saw between wanting to return home and wanting to find our own space in the world. The same fundamental human truth hiding behind incomparably differing stories. Ain’t it magic?
Of cooooooourse you might find something completely different in each one. You might be calling us total bullshit artists behind your laptop screen right now. That’s fine too. The point is – THE POINT IS – that no two (or three) stories are ever the same, no matter what you write about. And there is always (or should always be) some sort of nugget of truth inside them.
So what do you do with this info?
Step 1: Order your nugget
Take your anecdote and your summarised tweet. Does the tweet really truly reflect your story’s deep-down truth? No matter if it doesn’t. Take a few minutes to re-read ‘em both and have a philosophical ponder about what your story is reaaaaally about.
Maybe it’s a story about the inscrutability of the human heart.
Maybe it’s a story about grieving for your own mortality.
Maybe it’s a story about how everyone loves hot chips and cold beer on a summer day.
Now write down your ‘truth’ in one sentence.
Step 2: Pick your sauce
Remember the quick anecdote example from Part 2? “So I was on the bus home the other night and this bloke gets on with the biggest dog you’ve ever frickin’ seen – more like a horse, really – and the woman next to me starts freaking out…”
Well maybe it’s not really a story about an overreaction to a gigantic dog – maybe it’s a story about how people deal with phobias in public. Maybe it’s about the bond between dogs and their owners. Maybe it’s about the kindness (or indifference) of strangers. Maybe it’s really about that time you were knocked over by a massive Alsatian when you were a kid and you thought it was going to eat you and you peed yourself a little and your big brother thought it was hilarious and you’ve been traumatised ever since, and you felt really bad when you saw that woman freak out on the bus because everyone laughed and you kind of wanted to laugh too, even though you knew exactly how she felt, and you start wondering if that kind of detachment – that sort of shadenfreude – is actually a sort of innate human coping mechanism, and whether that’s why we think it’s fine that kids giggle away at the horrible, gruesome slapstick of Tom and Jerry but try to teach them that cruelty to animals and hitting their siblings is wrong. And breathe.
Let your train of thought chug away and see where it goes. Spend 20 minutes ‘freewriting’ and see if you can mould that central truth into a new idea.
NOTE: If you don’t know what freewriting is, it basically means writing down whatever pops into your head in a sort of stream of consciousness styleee. Doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish. Doesn’t matter if it makes no sense, or if you veer off on a tangent mid-sentence. Doesn’t matter if you start off by saying, “Hey, I’m sitting at the kitchen table about to this crazy-arse writing exercise and I have no idea what I’m doing arrgh.”
The purpose is to de-frag your brain and wheedle out all those juicy subconscious thoughts that become inaccessible when you try to write like a ‘proper’ writer. No backspace. No crossing things out or correcting your spelling and grammar. It’s fingers to the keyboard/pen to the paper for a solid 20 minutes with NO STOPPING.
Step 3: Stare at it for a while but DO NOT EAT IT no matter how hungry you are
Now put it away. Yes that’s right. Put it away for a day or two before re-reading and seeing if there’s anything worth salvaging. It might be a single sentence. It might be the bare bones of a new story. It might just be a feeling, or a tone of narrative voice.
The point of the exercise is to get used to trusting your inner storyteller and finding that central truth.
So you have to go now. Go on. Go. Git. Scram! Skiddleydoodle! Write. Ponder. Percolate. And when you’re ready, click on to Part 4: Project Salvage >>