By Darlene Cah
I had written humorous essays, sketch comedy and advertising copy, but always danced around fiction, too scared to really commit. Though, I’d tried to write short stories now and again, I knew they weren’t good, but had no idea why. Looking back, now with a tad more experience, I’d say they were trite, lacking honesty and truth. They were either over-the-top-melodramatic, outright corny or just flat. I cringe at the memory!
Then I discovered flash fiction. I figured, I write ad copy. Flash is short. Ad copy is short. Match made in heaven, right? Yes…on the brevity level, at least. I’m still learning the depth and creativity required of writing short-shorts. But there I was. I signed up for an online course, followed by an online critique group, and soon had a couple of flash pieces published. I thought, hey, look at me! I can write fiction. I’ll apply to an MFA program! I was still living in New York at the time, and while I was picturing myself strolling across the university campus on a crisp autumn day, toting books from one ivy-covered building to the next, my application and fifteen pages of flash fiction were being tossed into the recycle bin without a second glance. Probably, without even a first glance. I gave up.
Years later, I moved to North Carolina, and signed up for a continuing education creative writing class. My only goal was to write a story of more than two pages. Over-achiever that I am, I wrote three stories. I thought, hey, that’s a lot of words! I’ll apply to an MFA program! This time, I got in. I was sure it was a mistake, but still, I was proud of my stories. In my first workshop in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, Geoff Becker called us beginner writers. Frankly, I was insulted. Oh, the hubris born of writing more than two pages of prose! When my story came up for critique, I was sure my fellow writers and Geoff would see the empathy and dedication that went into it. They would identify with the characters, and be moved to great emotion as my protagonist reflected on her life. And besides, the story had just won an Honorable Mention in a local fiction contest. Come on, people, bring on the love! Uh…no. The characters were unrealistic. The story was boring. One of my peers actually laughed, and said something to the effect of, “Give me a break.” But, hey, the descriptions were vivid.
Then Geoff said the one thing that stuck with me for the rest of my MFA journey, the thing that I always remind myself as I write now: Something has to happen. The story I’d written was nothing more than a fifteen-page vignette. The entire piece took place in the protagonist’s past. While that is a legitimate technique, some kind of event has to have taken place in order for the story to be, at the very least, interesting. Keep the story moving forward. Even a short flashback should serve the forward momentum of the story. The event can be huge (a murder, a natural disaster, an emotionally-raw breakup) or it can be deceivingly simple (the bridge is closed so your protagonist has to take an alternate route, the struggle of taking a job that compromises your protagonist’s core values, etc). Either way, send that story on its merry way, barreling toward the conclusion!
If you find yourself wallowing in a lengthy rumination, get it out of your system then stop. Does it serve the story, send it forward? Think: what happens next? What are the consequences of the last thing that happened? In improv, we do a storytelling exercise called “Because of that.” Someone starts a story in which something happens, and each improviser adds to the story saying “because of that.”
Samantha arrived late to her job as a cashier on sale day
Because of that…her co-worker Fran was all alone at check-out
Because of that…there was a line of customers winding around the store
Because of that…they all started yelling
Because of that…Fran told the manager it was Samantha’s fault
Because of that…the manager docked Samantha’s pay
Because of that… Samantha’s stole money from the register
And so on.
Okay, not a Pulitzer Prize winner, but you get the idea. You may or may not produce a great story, but thinking of this exercise reinforces the concept of moving the narrative forward.
As for that first story I wrote, it should have centered on the relationship between the mother and her teenage daughter as the family prepares to move to another city and how their relationship is strained by that decision to relocate. I should have set it in the here and now, and let it fly to the end. Lesson learned.
What’s your favorite, most useful, most inspiring bit of writing advice?