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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

August 2009

Flash Fiction of Event: Tackling a Problem

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

At first, the final element of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, the story of Event, looks as if it might not have much to do with flash fiction. Card defines the event story as one in which the natural order has been overthrown and the protagonists struggle to restore it. Many heroic fantasies obviously fit this structure; some wielder of evil magic threatens to overrun the world, or has already done so, and the hero or heroes struggle to turn back the darkness. But the structure also describes Peter Benchley’s Jaws in which a great white shark terrorizes a beach resort and the characters struggle to understand and destroy the menace. Mysteries can be seen as stories in which the moral order has been upset and won’t be righted until the case has been solved. War novels are typically about the effort of the characters to survive the violence, defeat the enemy, and return to a peaceful life.

Whatever the genre, the struggle to restore order to chaos is clearly a big story, and it’s one that is hard to tell effectively in a few words. Whether the story begins in normal times and lets the chaos unfold before our eyes or begins with the chaos already dominant, the chaos has to be established before it can be combated. Then if the reader is to believe that the menace is serious, it can’t be defeated easily or swiftly. A story about the restoration of order is almost always going to be a novel.

It’s possible, of course, to write a 500-word version of a heroic fantasy in which the dark lord is driven back, is finally sealed away forever, and fertility returns to the blighted lands. But at 500 words, the story is probably going to succeed as parody or perhaps as an idea story, satisfying the reader with laughter or cleverness rather than the emotional and moral involvement that satisfies the reader of an epic struggle over 400 pages.

However, there are two ways in which writers of flash fiction can nonetheless focus on event as the primary element of a story. First, we can recognize that the event story as Card describes it is really just a special case of the story problem. The character or characters have a problem. In a novel, the problem can be that the moral order has been damaged. In a smaller narrative, the problem can be scaled down accordingly.

My sample story this time, “The Lobbyist’s Tale,” states the story problem up front: the narrator’s favorite bill has died in committee. The lobbyist narrator still wants the bill to become a law, so he sets out to make this happen. The problem is a modest one, a symbolic problem made concrete in the story by imagining the bills and laws as living creatures. The stakes are kept modest. The reader has no idea what the proposed law would do, and that’s as it should be. Rather than being about an entire moral order being overthrown, the story is about someone who didn’t get what he wants. It’s personal. Small.

More broadly, then, the focus on the event story is on a problem and the struggle to resolve it. The story begins with the problem and ends either when the problem is solved or when the failure to solve it is final. If you’re writing a novel, the problem can be grand — the fate of a world or a civilization. If you’re writing flash fiction, the problem may be a leaky faucet that keeps the protagonist awake.

The second way to apply the idea of “event” to flash fiction is to define the beginning, middle, and end of a story according to the chronology of some discrete event. A children’s birthday party, for example, begins when the children arrive; in the middle, the children play games, the birthday child opens gifts, and everyone eats cake; at the end, parents arrive to pick up their children. A story could follow this sequence, limiting the narrative according to the limits of the event. One of my favorite examples of such a story is David Galef’s story, “My Date With Neanderthal Woman.” (It is the second story on this page.) The story begins with the protagonist explaining his thoughts about what to bring his date as a gift (Flowers? Chocolate?), proceeds through the events of the date (first impressions, dinner, the walk home, saying goodnight), and concludes with the protagonist evaluating the prospects for a continuing relationship after this first date.

The flash fiction of event will probably need to be funny, as Galef’s story is, or serve to highlight an idea or define a character. That is, the event is unlikely to stand on its own in very short stories. At novel length, the seriousness of the problem can sustain a story even if the milieu, ideas, and characters are rendered at a minimum. In flash fiction, an event story probably won’t satisfy the reader unless at least one of the other elements is also strong. For example, I’d give “The Lobbyist’s Tale” a quotient of 2:4:1:4. The milieu of a state capital is featured a little, but it’s the ideas that provide much of the humor and pleasure of the story. The ideas are at least as important as the problem-based plot.

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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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