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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

June 2009

Flash Fiction of Idea: How Clever!

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

This is the twelfth column in Bruce’s series on writing the short-short story, and second in a four-part series on the “MICE” quotient. The first in the series, which discusses milieu, is here. You can also see all of his columns on his author page.

This month’s column is about stories that are written primarily to convey ideas. Science fiction provides a good starting point. Science fiction (and to some extent mystery fiction) appeals to its readers according to the originality of its ideas. And science fiction’s emphasis on ideas may go some distance to explaining why some readers and critics detest it.

Recently, my French translator quoted a member of the French Academy who said that any writer who chose to write science fiction was “already a failure.” Years ago, a professor who hired me to teach creative writing at his university told me that if I allowed students to write science fiction or mystery fiction, I would be undermining the standards of literary quality that he had spent years establishing.

Why this prejudice against science fiction? I don’t doubt that uninformed snobbery may be at work in some cases. For some critics, any literature that is popular or commercially successful must be bad. Moreover, some who dislike science fiction haven’t read much of it, so their opinions are formed on the basis of meager evidence. We’re seeing a generational shift in such attitudes, with younger critics and thinkers more likely to embrace the artistic possibilities of science fiction. The old snobs are dying off, just like the old racists, and I’m not sorry to see them go. But we won’t ever entirely see the last of them or their dismissive attitudes because they are, to at least some small degree, right.

Science fiction, and any literature of ideas, has an inherent problem. Literature that is judged chiefly for its ideas doesn’t live in the same environment as literature that is judged for, say, the elegance or efficiency of its language, the psychological depth of its characters, or its emotional power. Science fiction can have all of those excellent characteristics, but it doesn’t need them to succeed. Narratives that have little to recommend them other than nifty ideas can be highly successful as science fiction even if they are not otherwise very good, provided that the ideas are compelling enough.

Let me rephrase that. With an idea story, the writer can skimp on everything else. For most readers who love science fiction, a clever idea makes up for any other shortcomings.

Of course, science fiction can be a literature of ideas and fine art. However, when the two go together they may be packaged in a way that irritates the hell out of some science fiction fans. These fans bristle when they see science fiction novels such as Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow or The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, both undeniably science fiction, presented and reviewed as mainstream novels. Fans see this as a pure marketing ploy and are offended that the authors of such books seem to be denying the tradition in which they are writing. And, yes, marketing considerations are surely at work. But I think it’s also true that the novelists are deliberately seeking a more demanding audience. They don’t want to be perceived as having only an idea to offer.

To return to Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, science fiction readers have long been happy with stories that were 1:4:1:1, skimping on the elements of Milieu, Character, and Event for the sake of an entertaining Idea. Similarly, mystery fans are generally willing to accept routine settings and wooden characters so long as the solution to the mystery is sufficiently clever.

It’s not surprising that the professor who worried about students writing bad fiction would single out science fiction and mystery. Stories in these genres can succeed without some of the qualities that he found indispensable to good writing.

Many writers who still wear the genre labels associated with idea stories aren’t content to write only for the idea. The series detectives who used to never change from book to book now evolve, and science fiction characters who once might have been mere types are more likely to have real-seeming histories and complexity. The story that has only its ideas going for it is becoming rare, but it nonetheless endures because for some writers and their readers, the idea is all that matters.

When it comes to writing the flash fiction of ideas, this narrow approach — the idea-is-everything approach — becomes a virtue. If the writer wants to deliver an idea in a few hundred words, then it helps to strip the narrative of anything that isn’t essential to presenting the idea.

In his writing on the subject, Card suggests that the plot for an idea story works by posing a compelling question. Who killed the victim? Why are the technologically superior aliens attacking and how can they be stopped? The reader is kept in suspense about the answer as more and more information is revealed until, at the end, the question is answered. Once the answer has been delivered, the story is over.

This plot structure — question and gradual answer — works well for longer narratives, and it can work for flash fiction, too. Flash fiction, however, doesn’t need a plot to keep the reader turning pages, especially since there are only one or two pages to turn. Readers know the end is right around the corner, so they may get to the final sentence before a longer story would even have its plot question articulated. All that readers of flash demand of the story is something to catch and hold their interest while the idea is revealed. Strangeness and curiosity can be enough glue to hold together an idea flash fiction in the absence of a fully-formed question.

The example for this month’s column is an science fiction story that appeared in Analog, “Visions of Gingerbread.” In this story, characters are pared down to the bare minimum and the action is limited to whatever it takes to get the idea across. Such minimalism may always be viewed as a shortcoming in longer fiction, but for flash fiction, it’s a perfect fit.

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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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