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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

October 2008

Take a Letter... or a Fire Extinguisher

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Read Bruce’s previous column here, or visit his author page to see them all.

When a story begins, “Dear Claire,” we expect epistolary fiction: the story will take the form of a letter, a series of letters, or an exchange of letters. Style attributes from letter writing will shape the text. If the story is pretending to be, say, an exchange of business letters, then its text could include the letterhead, date, address of the recipient, salutation (Dear Mr. Smith), body, complimentary closing (Sincerely), a signature, and the initials of the letter writer in upper case and the typist or transcriptionist in lower case (BHR:str). Each feature helps to identify the story as epistolary, but is also a tool that the writer can use to reveal the narrative. There is a story arc already implicit, for example, in letters to the same address with the salutations, Dear Claire Smith, Dear Claire, My Dearest Claire, My Darling, Dear Mrs Smith, and Dear Occupant.

An epistolary story is an example of what I like to call an organic fixed form. Abstract fixed forms — such as the Word Loops and 369s that I wrote about in the previous column — are determined by completely arbitrary rules. That is, abstract fixed forms are made up from thin air. The rules for organic fixed forms, on the other hand, are not made up by the fiction writer, but are discovered “in the wild,” in the nonfiction texts that are all around us. Just as real letters help to define the rules and style of epistolary fiction, other kinds of text can provide their own rules to fiction.

From where I sit writing, here are some of the nonfiction texts that surround me: On my bookshelves, I see guides to foreign cities, field guides to animals and plants, how-to books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and cookbooks. My nearby fire extinguisher bears a label with instructions for maintenance and use. On another shelf, I see some boxed board games. Lying on my desk are the syllabus for a class I am teaching and a clothing catalog. Any of these texts could provide the form for a short story. Let’s consider how some of them might work.

The guide books give information about the location, price, and amenities of various tourist hotels. Sometimes there are brief notes describing problems to look out for or the special advantages of staying in a particular place. By expanding these notes, the write-up of four hotels could tell the story of what happened to the guidebook writer as he researched each place by spending a night in each one.

A story could be told through fictional entries from an encyclopedia or dictionary. Following the form of the models, the entries would have to be presented in alphabetical order.

Instead of saying what to do, the fire extinguisher instruction could be rewritten to say what not to do, contrasting the usual list of actions with the list of actions that someone actually took (with disastrous results worthy of a story, of course).

Board games usually provide a list of playing pieces, and explanation of the pieces, the object of the game, a description of the sequence of the play, examples of play, and examples of end-games. A story could recount the conflict between two neighbors over a leaf blower and other garden equipment as if the conflict were a game with pieces, rules, and victory conditions.

A syllabus-as-story could provide the dates of not only the class reading assignments and exams, but milestones in the romantic involvement between two of the students. Sometimes, the model text may already be a story, as when clothing catalogs include a narrative feature such as “The Story of Wolf Crest Clothes,” recounting how the company was founded and grew. As with the model, the fictional story might give an entertaining history of the company while referring to the catalog page numbers where various fictional products can be found.

To adopt any of these organic forms for a story, the first task would be to decide what characteristics you want to borrow from the model. Are there particular sections, such as the list of playing pieces from the board game, that would not only advance the story (in this case by listing characters, props, and setting) but could signal to the reader what kind of text the story was pretending to be? What words are peculiar to the kind of document you are mimicking? The label on my fire extinguisher begins: “MAINTENANCE: Follow instructions in Owners Manual and on nameplate. Inspect at least once a month or more frequently. Check pressure by pressing in green indicator button. If button does not spring back, extinguisher is inoperable.”

You should also consider what you can leave out. If you were writing a story that consisted of an exchange of business letters, you might include the letterhead and address on the first letter of the story, but, for the sake of efficiency, leave it off for subsequent letters in the same story.

If I were to write a short story in the form of fire extinguisher instructions, I might boil down the language from my fire extinguisher: “MAINTENANCE: Follow instructions in Owners Manual. Monthly, check pressure by pressing green indicator button. If button does not spring back, extinguisher is inoperable.”

Turning an organic form into a story usually means stretching the boundaries of the model. For instance, the comments about hotels in a guidebook are usually limited to a sentence or two. You would probably want to extend these to four or five sentences for a story. Since the story is going to consist principally of these sentences, you’d want to trim the rest of the entry to the bare essentials, just enough to signal to the reader that the text is from a fictional guidebook (unless the details of address, nearest subway station, and discounts accepted were actually integral to the story).

For the story to work as an organic fixed form, it has to retain enough characteristics of the model text to be recognizable. That’s important. But the most important consideration for working with organic fixed forms is this: Is there a story?

A lot of nonfiction humor is based on imitating or parodying various kinds of texts. I’ve seen some very funny pieces that proceed from a premise such as, “What if a depressive French poet wrote a garden column?” With rare exceptions, though, the resulting writing is not fiction, or at least is not a story.

I don’t like prescriptive formulas for what constitutes a story, especially since some people who learn a set of story “rules” then proclaim that anything violating those supposed rules “is not a story.” I am inclined, though, to say that usually in a story, something changes. For an organic fixed form to work as flash fiction, there must generally be an arc to the story, a sense of beginning, middle, and end, or at least of movement and change from start to finish. By the time the reader gets to the end, has something changed in a character? Or perhaps the reader’s perception has been changed?

Later on, I’ll introduce you to some particular kinds of organic fixed forms. For now, here’s a story that I based on a book for expectant mothers, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The factual information, the tone, and some of the vocabulary for my story are simply a very compressed version of that book. But as you’ll see, my story stretches the dimension of time beyond the nine months of that book.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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