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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

February 2009

Zoom! Writing a Lifetime in a Page or Two

  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.

One of the pleasures of good flash fiction is that it packs a lot into a small package. Sometimes the big thing that is packed into the small package is an implied back story. For example, the story may recount only the act of carrying an injured dog from the car into the veterinarian’s office, but in that limited action we learn a great deal about the man carrying the dog, his wife who is opening doors for him, and the couple’s relationship to each other. The action and time frame are small, but every action or exchange of dialog reveals a relationship that has developed over many years.

A few stories, though, pack an entire big story, such as a years-long love affair or a character’s complete life, into a few hundred words. That’s the focus of this column: brief stories that cover a long span of time from the beginning, through the middle, to the end.

So far, I have written three stories that give the reader a character’s whole life in a flash. The compression of these stories portrays a subjective truth: Life rushes by. Or at least it does once you reach a certain age. When I was a child, it seemed like it took forever for Christmas to come. Time also crawled before my eighteenth birthday, and the years between eighteen and twenty-one took ages to pass. Somewhere in my twenties, however, time started speeding up. Suddenly I was thirty, then forty. Before I got accustomed to being in my forties, I wasn’t any more. At fifty, I know that sixty and seventy are right around the corner. Zoom!

Brief stories that recount the passage of an entire life or some other long span of time give the reader the sensation of time flying by. Here are some thoughts about writing such stories effectively.

1. A life is a good subject for the story of a long period told briefly. A lifetime has its own beginning, middle, and end in birth (or childhood), maturity, and old age (or death). A life is big, but we also think of it as a unit. Was it a good life? We can consider the qualities of a life, hold it in the mind as a single story.

A life is not the only possible subject, however. Anything that shares those qualities could also be the subject of a short-short. Empires have a beginning, middle, and end. A decade or century is big, but we think of it as a unit. We can consider whether a long love affair or marriage was good or bad. All of these, and many other long spans, can be contemplated for their qualities, can be held in the mind as a single story.

2. To tell such a story, you must include the beginning, middle, and end. You have to show the progression, the evolution of the subject through time, while leaving out almost everything that happened. If most stories are icebergs that are 90% under water, a story like this is 99.9% under water.

3. One way to limit the story is to pick one key aspect to focus on. “Dinosaur” tells the character’s life through the prism of identity. What is he? As a small boy, he is a dinosaur, and he progresses through imaginary identities to more grown-up identities, including the adult identities of working professional and then retiree. Another story, “Night Life,” focuses on a character’s experiences of night, from the nights of her childhood to adolescence to young motherhood, older motherhood, and into old age.

4. Alternatively, you can choose as a controlling metaphor some brief event that itself has a beginning, middle, and end. You map your long event onto the brief metaphor. “Sprint” tells the story of a man’s life as if it were a race. In the beginning, his parents are helping him to get ready for the race, and by the time he is at the starting line, he is an adolescent. After the starter’s pistol is fired, he runs, and while running falls in love, gets married, and has children. At the end of the race he is exhausted, too tired to stand up again, and it seems that the stadium lights are being turned off. A lifetime of events have been overlaid onto running a sprint.

5. A lifetime, a century, or a love affair have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, but even stories with such an obvious organic shape can benefit from additional shaping that make them more layered and complex. In a story with a controlling metaphor, the metaphor determines the shape. A race has a beginning, middle, and end, and these correspond to a life’s beginning, middle, and end. Other abstract shapes might be a spiral (showing a return to the same elements again and again) or the simple trick of looping the end back to the beginning. This is how “Dinosaur” works. The story begins and ends with a dinosaur.

6. Keep the story in the now, using the succession of events to keep “now” moving forward. Avoid standard time transitions such as “years later” or “the following week” that signal jumps in time. Part of the pleasure of the big time period made small is the feeling that wherever we are in the story is right now and that by the time we get to the end, events have hurried by in quick succession. Don’t call attention to time periods that you’re skipping over or events that aren’t included in the story. In “Dinosaur,” the character is employed at the beginning of the sentence in which his job makes him feel small, and he is retired by the end of the sentence. He moves from one state to another without any transition that says, “and then some time passed.” The subjective result is that time feels compressed rather than sparsely sampled.

As always, these notes about how I have written my own stories are not rules, just suggestions based on what has worked for me. Write your story your way. But don’t delay. Before you know it, ten more years will have disappeared in a flash.

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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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