Withholding the Backstory and Context
It’s no surprise that my favorite openings often start with a sense of the character, point of view, setting, and conflict. A tall order to get that much information into the first sentence, but as Jeff Vandermeer says, “A good piece of fiction teaches the reader how to read the narrative from the first paragraph.” I want my reader engaged with the main character as soon as possible. I try to make them the voice and eyes of the camera of the story. Vandermeer also says that “the reader stares through a telescope focused close in on some particular object, person, setting, or other element.” I typically want this focus on my main character, what action they are taking to open the story, or how they are directly seeing the world of this story.
The main character and how they filter details and the senses create the stage of the story. The quicker this stage is established the sooner the character can act on that stage! Vandermeer backs this up by saying “The point is that motion of any kind draws the eye to look in a particular direction, and the reader assigns some measure of agency or importance to whatever is moving.” If the weather is moving instead of the character then the importance is put more on the weather than the character and this creates a different focus and more than likely a different kind of story. If we want to give importance to our characters then we want to see them acting as soon as possible.
Let’s take a look at “In Case of An Emergency” by Linda Niehoff.
1. I finally stopped at the smallest motel I could find and fed quarters into the Coke machine. Now I’m watching the electric blue light rippling from the pool. There aren’t any trees out here so you can see to the end of things. Lightning flashes, still far off. It’s pink and jagged, the kind you see in photographs on bank calendars - that nighttime shot with a distant farm along the edge and that one lone jag of lightning reaching all the way down.
We have character/point of view, voice, a particular setting, and “finally” hints at a bit of conflict. We can infer a tired traveler, a person who can’t afford a fancy hotel, who would like to keep going, but has to stop before they fall asleep. I love that we have an action and that’s it’s not checking in, but buying a coke. This is just a different enough starting point that skips all the usual experiences of checking into a hotel, and I’m interested to see what else this character will do.
I also love that the weather is important in this story, but that the character comes first. I love how the character filters the specific dey=tials through their unique voice and consciousness! This is made deeper by the comparison to the bank photos. The main character has a specific way of looking at the world which makes the story more intimate from the very beginning, pulling the reader in and letting them know they are in the hands of a writer they can trust!
I also love that there’s no backstory yet! We’re here on the stage in the front story, waiting to see what will happen and hoping we get more context along the way! Sometimes the risk of withholding the backstory and context can create tension rather than confusion!
I didn’t recognize the names on the weather map inside on TV. I don’t know if those warnings are for me. I hold the sweating Coke can and watch the sky. Shadows of sunflowers cut themselves out of the horizon. I can’t tell if I should take shelter immediately. The signs in the lobby showed a symbol of a narrowing coil - a twister.
I love how Niehoff uses compression and cuts the character moving and just puts us in the lobby and their confusion about the weather report! The character is stalled here, but the stakes have been escalated and the pause creates more tension as the character decides what to do. This is a great mix of specific details filtered through the character’s senses and a bit of interior as well.
It’s not that flash can’t contain some interior thoughts, but it must be made more active and ribboned through and supported by concrete details. Writing flash is an alchemy of all the craft elements chosen by and through compression!
Notice how much of the desires of the main character are hidden from the reader, but there are some clues in the opening and the way the narrator views the worsening storm! The character’s desire is revealed in sections 5 and 6. This reveal is what creates this story. We have more than just a weary traveler stopping for the night. We have a character who is ready to act on their desires regardless of the lack of common sense and the possible danger.
The naming of a desire at a well-placed point in a story can not only escalate the stakes, but it can push the character toward action, toward a lack of self-regard for safety and comfort!
7. Maybe I’ll jump in the pool fully clothed, wave my arms, yell, “Here I am!” I don’t know what stops me.
8. The woman in 212.
9. Her curtain keeps moving, and she glances out like I’m a madman, not some guy holding a Coke can watching the storm move in.
10. Maybe tonight I am.
But Niehoff doesn’t follow through with this character’s desire at all! The escalation here is a bit different than we’d expect. The escalation is created by the woman in 212! A stranger and her weird glances stop our character from acting, stultifying his chance to change or shift! The story and its plot, as simple as it is, give him a chance to realize his desires, but there’s just enough in his way to stop him from acting. There’s our resonance!
And all of this is set up by this opening, this perfect use of point of view and filtering of the details through the main character’s senses! We have just enough context to make inferences and we feel as if we were part of this story! Another version of this story might have had more backstory, more context and it might still have worked, but the compression here creates a different form of this story, and I’m still thinking about this man, his can of coke, and his chance to fulfill his desire that he doesn’t take!
Prompt: Take a place that is used by lots of people passing through. A rest stop, a hotel lobby, a train station, an airport… Use it for a story. Let the details be filtered through the main character’s point of view and senses. How are they seeing this world through the particular lens of their current feelings! What past event is putting pressure on these feelings or putting pressure on them to act in a way that’s not quite typical of their behavior? Can you state their desire? What stops them from following through with getting their desires? How can you escalate the stake to create movement and resonance? How can these stakes keep us thinking about this character after reading the story?
Try It At Home: Pick two characters and get them talking. Try to write as many knockout lines as you can, let them reveal their secrets to one another, let them lie and tell the truth, and try to get the other person to understand or see them in a new light. Have these characters say the things you’ve always wanted to say! Don’t hold back
Write With Me Opportunities
So many classes in May! I won’t be teaching anything in June and July, so I’ve overloaded myself as usual in May!
Writing the Micro! May 12-14. Asynchronous (no live element) Read model texts and my analysis and write to 1-2 prompts per day with positive feedback on each draft by me and your classmates!
Time: 09:00 am - 11:00 am PDT
Cost: $40/$32 for members
Welcome to a generative opportunity to focus on your writing! In this two hour zoom class, we will look at Flash fiction examples from the literary magazine Fractured Lit. As the editor, I want to show you some craft moves that will help you build resonant, exciting, flash fiction! We’ll look at openings, characterization, metaphors, compression, and ways to escalate plot and conflict! Come ready to write and share your rough drafts as we write together!
Having trouble creating depth and resonance in your flash and micro stories? Do your stories lack the metaphors and similes that create a wider context? Do you struggle with creating vignettes rather than stories? In this 1 hour generative class, we’ll look at flash and micro stories that use metaphors to create context and depth, and warrant multiple reads. Come for the inspiring and engaging prompts in a safe environment! Metaphor isn’t just for the Poets!
All Things Hollows!
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