MINAGE GLORIA MWANIGA
An award-winning writer once described writing flash fiction as picking up a single fragment of a shattered world and creating out of it something whole. This description aptly illustrates two things a writer of flash fiction must have: An ability to fill a compressed space with a whole and a lot of nuance.
After 6 months of co-judging the www.100wordsafrica.com competition, I am happy to share my thoughts on what makes a great, award-winning 100 word story.
- Hook the reader. Create an immediate impression by starting with a gripping event. There is no time for unnecessary back stories and explanations about how the character got into the situation. Readers would rather find themselves smack in the middle of the action.
‘‘Snip!’’ ‘‘Snip!’’ Sings my scissors as mother-in-law’s hands plough through my dwindling locs.
The November 2018 winning story, ‘A study In Scissors’ hooks the reader with this wonderful beginning that also introduces the main characters and their relationship.
- Have one main character pressed by a single need. Make the character compelling and interesting. Let us see him/her grow, learn and change by the end of the story
- Learn the art of compression. There are no words to waste therefore, the story should be found in every sentence and it should lead to the story in the next sentence. This will quickly advance the plot.
Scissors are sharp objects; useful for cutting off hair long enough to hide bruises or to drag a ‘barren’ wife by; sharp enough to kill a husband with.
With this line, OmoOhanomah has successfully tells us about the narrator’s abusive marriage, the reason for the couple’s fights and the cause of the husband’s death.
- Do not describe too much. Space is compressed so your best bet is to be creative and to use sharp language with great sensory detail and imagery.
- Have three or less characters and strive to develop each of them fully. Well-rounded, interesting people with character flaws are easier to identify with than perfect caricature creations.
- Pick a great title that gives us a sneak peek into the story. Use the title to show the tip of the iceberg not the entire thing.
- Create a compelling narrative by employing the elements of fiction. Ensure that the narration keeps the tale sharp and tight.
- Henry’s stories taught us that an unexpected final twist can be a great thing in a story. And it is. The last sentence in Emmanuel Waziri’s winning story Barawo seems to go against all existing rules on brotherhood.
Your gazes collide. ‘‘Help me’’ Umar Mouthed. You shook your head, clutched your pockets filled with stolen oranges and walked away from your brother.
- Think original. For originality is a coveted trait in the creative world. Even when you choose to write on a familiar theme, do not let it be predictable. Turn that clichés on its head and refresh readers with a new way of seeing.
The January 2019 winning story, ‘A Different Help’ tells the age-old story of a young girl being married off to a rich old suitor. However, the writer keeps off the cliché of jealous fighting wives and instead shows us co-wives who decide to ‘help’ each other sexually because their turn to meet the old man is still far!
STANLEY ONJEZANI KENANI
The true definition of “less is more” manifests itself in flash fiction. Choose words carefully so that you are able to communicate more with the fewest words possible. An example is the following, which I saw on Twitter:
Spoke to my ex after 10 years.
“Miss or Mrs?” he asked.
“Dr.,” I said.
In the story above, we can deduce that:
- The couple probably had a nasty break-up;
- The husband often told her she was not very bright, and probably regretted for marrying someone who was not quick on the uptake.
- The lady never thought a day would come to make the man know that she had reached the pinnacle of academic study.
Writing sentences that sing is another trick that could make a short piece of fiction unforgettable in the minds of the reader. Take the following, for example, by the Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai:
I would leave everything here: the valleys, the hills, the paths, and the jaybirds from the gardens, I would leave here the petcocks and the padres, heaven and earth, spring and fall, I would leave here the exit routes, the evenings in the kitchen, the last amorous gaze, and all of the city-bound directions that make you shudder, I would leave here the thick twilight falling upon the land, gravity, hope, enchantment, and tranquility, I would leave here those beloved and those close to me, everything that touched me, everything that shocked me, fascinated and uplifted me, I would leave here the noble, the benevolent, the pleasant, and the demonically beautiful, I would leave here the budding sprout, every birth and existence, I would leave here incantation, enigma, distances, inexhaustibility, and the intoxication of eternity; for here I would leave this earth and these stars, because I would take nothing with me from here, because I’ve looked into what’s coming, and I don’t need anything from here.
This style is more of prose poetry than conventional fiction. In only 167 words, the narrator abandons the full range of earthly experience. The narrator’s sentences, which had hammered away at reality, beat softly with a sad resignation. Most notably, the goodbye is mixed, tinged with remorse. It is a goodbye to the both the sublime and the quotidian, and to mostly hope rather than despair.
The desire to be didactic ruins most stories in the 100wordsafrica competition. Writers find themselves duty-bound to teach about AIDS, rape, incest, etc, which are all invariably weighty themes and must of necessity be written about endlessly, but what separates good writers from great is the art of writing about the same mundane themes without coming across as didactic. Life is messy. Stories do not always happen to teach us lessons. In fact, in the era of postmodernism, some, such as WG Sebald, Teju Cole and Karl Ove Knaussgaard, are going for plotlessness. What matters is that the story should grip the attention of the reader and should be believable, in keeping with the philosophical concept of verisimilitude, in which the art of fiction is rooted.
Stanley Kenani is an accomplished Malawian writer who has been twice shortlisted for the Caine prize for Africa literature. In 2014, he was named among the 39 most promising African writers under 40. He has judged entries on www.100wordsafrica.com. He is currently working on a novel.
The first—and perhaps the only—thing you need to keep in mind when writing microfiction is this: ensure that what you’re writing is a story, not something else.
This requirement is so obvious that it is astonishing how often it is violated. The major drawback of many entries submitted for the www.100wordsafrica.com contest is that they are not really stories but other things pretending to be stories—thinly veiled polemics against social ills, static descriptions of locations, abstract profiles of people, anecdotes relayed at one or two removes from direct experience, etc. Those things may be interesting in their own right, but their modes are counterproductive to the creation of compelling microfiction.
The brief compass provided by microfiction is no excuse for eschewing memorable characterisation, narrative development, and other virtues of good storytelling. I could talk at length about how stories depict characters negotiating their ways through distinctive existences in lived time, and how they string together events and actions to enable an exchange of human experience through words, but if you still need a disquisition on the basics that differentiate stories from other kinds of writing, you would do well to first commit yourself to a programme of extensive reading before attempting to write a story.
The tips below shed some more light on the art of microfiction. I hope you find them useful.
That is the only option microfiction provides to transcend the severe word restrictions of the form. Because it can accommodate only the bare outlines of experience, microfiction is even more intolerant of indulgence than the short story. But savvy writers turn that limitation into an advantage. This microstory by Augusto Monterroso, seen by some readers as the greatest one-sentence story ever written, serves as illustration: When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there. The suggestiveness of that distilled essence of experience compels the reader into imagining what came before and what comes after. And in so doing, the reader completes the narrative in his or her mind—beyond the acutely circumscribed frame of the microstory.
Narrative summary is the great bane of all fiction, long or short. Effective fiction presents concrete particulars—people, places, objects, actions, etc.—not abstractions. Even within the abbreviated span afforded by microfiction, the moment-by-moment presentation of the specific details of experience is still imperative. Engaging microfiction succeeds in presenting the reader with the most essential concrete details of the experience being depicted, even if it cannot elaborate on those details by accumulating a proliferation of particulars like longer forms of fiction.
Rather than composing a story with disparate incidents, ensure that the incidents are a consequence of one another—or, at the very least, strongly dependent and connected to one another. The synergy between the incidents will make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. These two examples from E.M. Forster provide concrete demonstration: The king died and then the queen died and The king died and then the queen died of grief. Not only are the events in the latter connected, they imbue each other with startling significance. And that makes the second example more memorable than the former.
Make your characters unique. There are several ways of achieving this. The most visual and most potent way is by showing a character in action, but a character can also be individualised through the viewpoints of others or through the impressions that character has of the surrounding world.
The microfiction form privileges you with only a handful of words, so don’t fritter away them away on the nonessential. Each word must work harder than it would in a short story, not to talk of a novel. All words not relevant to the central action of the narrative are superfluous. The formal severity of the microstory is akin to that of the lyric: both demand absolute rigorousness in the selection and deployment of words.
Writing is rewriting, as they say. Revisiting your work will reveal that many things that seemed true at first light are no longer so, to paraphrase Hemingway. And it will give you a chance to correct any typographical or grammatical error in your writing. If you submit your story immediately after typing it out on your phone or laptop without leaving it aside for a while and going over it time and again, you’re not doing yourself a favour.
- Ignore (if necessary)
If you feel that any of the tips above will prevent you from writing the kind of story you desire, follow your instincts and ignore the tip. There are no hard-and-fast rules in writing. Remember that whatever you create belongs to you. Just make sure you’re writing a story, not something else.
Check out this article for examples of excellent flash fiction and further discussion on the art of microfiction. Also read Ifeoluwa Watson’s ‘Finding Daddy’, OmoOhanoma’s ‘A Study in Scissors’, Emmanuel Waziri Okoro’s ‘Barawo’ and other past winning entries in the 100WordsAfrica monthly contest for practical insights into the points discussed above. Good luck!