Got to spend the day on Sunday learning about short fiction from Terry Bisson as part of the Hugo House series of one day workshops (http://www.nwmediaarts.com/2007Event-Workshops.html). About a month ago I went to one of the other workshops in this series, where I learned about ‘middles’ from Connie Willis. Therefore, I was pleased when Terry announced that we would be learning about ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings.’ So in theory, I should be able to write a complete story now :) We also spent a lot of time on how to convey information using dialogue, which I found very helpful.
– A story is the controlled release of information. At the beginning of a story, you present the reader with certain bits of information (e.g., the setting, the POV, the genre of the story, etc). If you can demonstrate to the reader in the beginning that you are in control of the information being presented, they are more likely to relax and go along with your story.
– Economy. You can convey a lot of information in just the first few sentences, if you choose your words carefully. (Terry read the first sentence or two of several good short stories, and asked the class what information we knew, based on these sentences. Often, you knew quite a bit — the time period, setting, genre, age and gender of the POV character, etc, etc.)
– Make dialogue work harder. This is tough to explain, as we mostly did this through a series of writing exercises. But the basic idea is to try to convey things in the text of the dialogue, rather than doing the work with little expository bits. The temptation is often to explain to the reader after a character says something (e.g., “blah blah blah.” She wasn’t really angry, just impatient because….). If you do the dialogue correctly, you don’t need the explanation afterwards. Particularly for flash, where your wordcount is so small anyway, you can often do away with a lot of the non-dialogue bits.
– Symmetry. In a flash story, there isn’t room for a lot of plot. So to make the story feel complete, start with something, and bring the story back to that first thing. This will give the story a more resolved feeling, even if there isn’t a lot of resolution (e.g., if the character tosses a bottle cap on the ground at the beginning of the story, having them pick it up at the end will provide resolution of sorts, even if the story isn’t really about the bottle cap at all).