Excise; Compress: Love is Forever

Excise; Compress.

When words are at the a high premium you must be very careful of which ones to use. I've been ruminating about writing a series of articles that discusses ways that writers of awesome flash fiction keep their prose so tight for a long time, but it recently found a renewed flare. In the last week my shortest two contracted pieces of fictions yet were accepted and published—both 25 words ("Avoir du Chien" is in Unbroken, and the accepted piece will be published on Nanoism this Wednesday, I'll include a link here when it is). So I've decided that I might as well give the article a go with one of my favorite examples of the extremely short story. I like to cite it when the oft-referred to 'attributed to Hemmingway' six word novel comes up. The story is: "Love is Forever" by Merrilee Faber. 

Sure, it's 21 words and that's more than six, but it has four characters and four actions as well as the mislead typically seen in the extremely short prose piece we call hint or perhaps micro fiction. Another way to think of this move/trope is to think of the standard structure of the sonnet: eight lines, volta, six lines. OK, sure, we don't always place the volta (or turning point) exactly there, but you get the point. If the turn is too close to the end it feels less like where the organic movement of the words had been heading all along and more like a punchline. A fair amount of extremely short fiction ends up a little bit punchliney, unfortunately. But I digress, let's move along. This way.

Speaking of Punchlines

When it comes to tightening a story there are a number of ways to cull the word count. Not that we're necessarily trying to write the shortest story, but it is always fun to push boundaries and one of those boundaries is to tell a story with as few words as possible. Jimmy Carr has a comedy bit about writing the shortest jokes he can such as "Stationery store moves." As can be expected, the setup and punchline are as short as can be while still conveying information. The first two words provide the subject/mislead, the last word provides the action, and the heavy lifting, as with all extremely short jokes, is done by the dueling of multiple conflicting meanings. In this case, stationery refers both to the product that the store sells—papers, envelopes, writing implements etc—and the fact that a store is immobile or stationAry which sounds identical but seemingly contradicted by the moving. Of course we know that the store doesn't physically move unless it's near a fault line or a wastewater disposal facility. We aren't meant to think that the store has moved but relocated. The point of the joke is merely to remind the listener that they understand homophone of stationary and stationery and that move means both for something to physically move and for a business to relocate, and then we're supposed to appreciate that that idiosyncrasy of the language is one we hadn't thought of, at least in such a tight configuration. I know I showed my appreciation of that joke the first time with a hearty chuckle.

Ever notice that the explanation of a joke is always tedious and never funny at all? Remember that if you're ever tempted to believe that the person you've just told your joke to hadn't understood, consider that if they had and just didn't think it was funny, you explaining it makes you look at best condescending and that it's best to move along sir.

So What's Excise; Compress?

Excise; Compress is the process I use to edit all of my fiction, but especially when I'm aiming to tell my story in as few words as possible. Excise any non-essential information, then take what's left and compress it by phrasing everything as efficiently as possible. This can mean using contractions like switching "would not" to "wouldn't" but more specifically it's changing a sentence like:

"He thought that he had seen the same man at least twice the day before" 
"He'd seen the man twice yesterday" 

Why? Well, most likely the uncertainties are not important to the story and "yesterday" is more concise than "the day before" which takes a 13-word sentence and makes it a 6-word sentence without losing any information or sounding robotic. If you remove too much sentences can become choppy, which, while it can have its place, isn't necessarily what you're likely going for.

Deciding what is vitally important to the story is key when it comes to flash fiction, but especially for fiction that is under 100 words like the story we'll be looking at here. Extraneous details can slow a story down or take away from your central metaphor or narrative, they can even diminish narrative tension. They can be wonderful as well, and perhaps what was once an extraneous detail can become more central to your piece through editing. 

The Story:

This story is all over the internet from pintrest to blogs, Squalorly's Facebook page and list websites so I don't think it's a big deal I retype it here.

Love is Forever
by Merrilee Faber (from Hint Fiction)

We came around the corner and there they were: young lovers, hands clasped. I drew the outline. Joe directed the crowd.


Take a minute and savor that surprise.

Yeahhhhhh. Doesn't it hurt so good?

If not, read it again knowing that despite its few words something very sad has happened. We'll wait. 

If you still don't have it, consider what sort of outline is drawn, think chalk

So how do we have the rug pulled out from under us so efficiently? 

Let's start with the beginning: The title, or as I like to think of it, your piece's hat. While it can be just an accessory that vaguely compliments the outfit, it can also completely pull it together. 

Love is Forever. 

It's a Billy Ocean song. It's the title of a TV movie from 1983 starring Michael Landon. It's not original in the way that many flash writers like to make their prose piece hats unique, like the frippery of an internet-famous 'neckbeard', or perhaps like that Johnny Depp outfit that just works (And don't get me wrong, I'm a big lover of long and idiosyncratic titles and frequently use them myself). This sounds like a romantic story about the endurance of the grand emotional connection we call love. The title takes on a new meaning with the realization that the 'forever' involved in this particular love isn't a non-prescient imagining of the abstract future but the abstract idea of an unending afterlife where love might continue. Or, it's not a pop song saying "Our love will live on" so much as a dour reminder of the foolish rashness and turmoil of young people in love, perhaps even pulling into mind other familiar suicide pacts like Romeo and Juliet or Thelma and Louise.

If the piece's title was "On the corner of 143 and 100th" the feel would be completely different. While the title would set the piece in an extremely precise place, that place does not carry any weight to the average reader. It also sets the tone in a sort of 'police blotter' mode. Facts only, which loses the romanticism of the tragedy by a few notches. Forever and Love are both abstractions. The title sits in such a stoic opposition to the text that I can't help but admire the audacity. Such a great contrast.

The story's volta uses the ironic structure and comes roughly two-thirds of the way through. The second section is two sentences symmetric in length which serves to lengthen the second half in a way that a single unbroken sentence wouldn't. Am I overthinking this? Probably. But why not overthink this instead of past mistakes I can't change? Memoirs will come later, words will come shortly and this analysis is now, man.

How about we look at the final movement of the pre-volta section. 

"Young lovers, hands clasped." This is a scene in four words by excising any extraneous details. What were their names? Who cares. It has no bearing on the story, and in fact, naming the lovers might undercut the story. What are they doing? That is explained by the drawing of the outline, so if it said "laying bloody on the cracked sidewalk" the weight of the drawing of the outline is completely cast aside. However, the outline by itself isn't entirely telling, and it isn't until the other police officer directs the crowd do you realize that A) the narrator is a cop, B) he has a partner named Joe, C) the outline is indeed as you had suspected (and not that the narrator is a caricaturist) one drawn around dead bodies for forensic aid in much less scientific days which also gives the piece a little more of a setting, likely somewhere between the 1890s and the 1950s, give or take a bit. While this is a story of a few particulars, this is not just a story of a particular incident. Love is the first emotion to really rock a kid as they transition from the potentially murky waters of adolescence into adulthood. And it's hard as hell to explain, even for adults. 

Some of you, undoubtedly, think I'm spending way too many words on a story that is so few, but that is exactly the point of extremely short fiction, specifically the notion of "Hint Fiction". The idea is to use words so specifically and well that a larger story is clearly implicit. Need another metaphor? How about origami. It's a piece of paper with some binary folds. One, one, one one one one one. Yet the accumulation of those few folds, which while made at random might emulate a heap of trash, could also be honed into a hummingbird in flight.

Possible Writing Exercises:

1) Structure. Write a story that is under thirty words and has its volta at roughly the same place (1/2-3/4 the way through). Also the section that follows the volta should be two sentences of equal length, whether three or five words. By constricting your writing in this way you will be forced to look at how information can be conveyed not only in few words, but also how that information can be distributed in two short sentences.
2) Title. "____ is _____". Write a story or poem that uses the same structure as the title of Love is Forever. Pick an emotion for the first word and for the second choose either a length of time, a color or a musical term.
3) Subject. Write the story of two co-workers stumbling upon something startling or shocking at their place of work.
4) Subject. Write the story of the young lovers that jumped. Keep your prose very sparse and pack as much information into as few words as possible, only include the most necessary of information, every image must tell a larger story.
5) Subject. Write the story of two veteran cop partners so familiar with each other they work a crime scene without saying a word to each other.
6) Nanoism. The only restriction for submissions to Nanoism is that there must be no more than 140 characters. Yeah, you guessed it, tweet-length. Tell a story that, like "Love is Forever", is under 140 characters. If you want a further restriction to get the juices flowing, make it three sentences in length.
7) Narrative Thread. Begin your piece with the phrase "We came around the corner" and take it somewhere different from where Merrilee Faber took it in "Love is Forever".

Anyway, I hope some of that was interesting. I definitely recommend the anthology Hint Fiction edited by Robert Swartwood. It's got a number of really good tiny stories (as well as a number of punchlines) and the introduction is a good read as well. Plus it won't break the bank. As of posting this you can buy one of five used on Amazon for under $.50 if you want to save as much of your money as possible for submission fees.
Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer