Holy bat#*!@ a serviceable story in around 100 words. That is what I was thinking when I tried writing 500 word stories for contests at Podcastle and Escapepod a few years back. I had finally gotten used to writing decent stories at 1,000 words for the monthly flash fiction contests at SFFworld.com even though I hadn’t won anything. Now they were asking me to come up with interesting material in half that length.
Needless to say, I did not do well. I tried too hard to give them stories with the scope and back story I was giving at 1,000 words. I tried to fit references to the larger world, develop characters, and explain ideas, which forced the word count upward so had be chopped in later edits. By not grasping the type of writing necessary for the word length, I left the stories unfocused and unsatisfying. The grand ideas I was trying to portray couldn’t be made to fit into the word length of the contest.
Does that mean that you can’t express grand ideas in such a small word count? No. It just means you need to allow the reader much more freedom to bring in their own backstory. Or, more precisely, to chose your writing to better direct some common themes of human life to help direct the backstory the reader brings into the experience. I did not grasp that before.
I have completed my 100 word story, which is one fifth that of the above contest and I am much more satisfied with the results because I did not try to do all the heavy lifting with the story. In a novel you can have more than 80,000 worlds to tell a story. With that kind of space you can give more references to guide the reader toward the world and characters you envisioned. You can narrow the outside material readers bring to the table by explaining motivations and describing the visuals, something us flowery types take a ribbing for, but it helps direct the flow of the reader’s thoughts. Of course, given the size of the world and human population, there will still be a lot of misinterpretation due to readers with vastly different life experiences.
You would think that decreasing the word count would vastly increase the chance of missing any significant audience. However, I think I see it the other way around now. The object is not to direct the reader to see your idea, but to take advantage of the most basic human experiences to become the backbone of your story in place of what you cannot write. For example, I would find it hard to get across the specifics of religious views behind a struggle I wanted to portray in 100 words. However, if I take advantage of the thousands of years of human history pertaining to religion and the resultant strife, I can focus on the immediate story by just mentioning the action revolved around a religious dispute.
That is what I wanted to pass on today. Look for my story to be posted at SFFworld soon.