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How to Save Words
By Chris Boss, UR Writing ConsultantWriter's Web
(printable version here)

Writers sometimes have difficulty acclimating to the narrow confines of such short literature. But concision is essential, especially given that the reader, probably understanding the implications of flash fiction, will read deeply into every single word. Therefore a stray word might convey a message which the writer did not intend, and may make the difference between a profound story and a meaningless one.

Here is a demonstration of how to cut the word count. Suppose a writer aims to create a flash fiction story conveying hopelessness. Take this sentence:

"The day is so gray," said Mary, leaning over the counter and looking out through the kitchen window.

How can the writer improve the sentence? By asking him/herself a series of questions, the writer can try to isolate some of the problems in the sentence. For example, What does a reader get from the image of Mary leaning over the counter? Well, maybe the image doesn't fit the tone, because maybe the body language indicates that she wishes she were outside. This sense of yearning might not supplement the desired sense of hopelessness. The new sentence becomes:

"The day is so gray," said Mary, looking out through the kitchen window.

What about the kitchen? Does that specific setting propagate the mood any further? Does the reader need a sense of place, any place, to ground his/her understanding? Maybe not.

"The day is so gray," said Mary, looking out through the window.

Is the word 'through ' really essential? It doesn't seem grammatically or rhetorically necessary.

"The day is so gray," said Mary, looking out the window.

For that matter, what does the final clause add? Perhaps the house has already been established as a setting, and if Mary sees the grayness outside than it's assumed she's looking out a window.

"The day is so gray," said Mary.

And Mary may be the only character, so there's no need to designate her as the speaker.

"The day is so gray."

Maybe even that is too much. Maybe just:

"It's gray."

Or, if I really want a symbolic and reductive story, could it be interesting if Mary simply mutters:

"Gray."

Perhaps somewhere in the process the writer crossed a boundary, omitting something that needed to be there. Maybe the single word "gray" does not flow well in the textual location, and perhaps the story demands something with more syllables. Perhaps "gray" is simply too obtuse and symbolic. The writer has many options to cut the word count and retain, or even enhance, the impact of the prose, and in flash fiction the ability to find the right balance can carry a story along.


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