Writing flash fiction

A lot of what is called “sudden” or “flash fiction” relies on the Ernest Hemmingway idea of the “tip of the iceberg”; the author should only report what is happening without adding the reasons or background to the events depicted. A flash fiction supposedly written by Hemmingway is: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Today with the ever-growing influence of the web-based social networking sites such as “Twitter” the way we are communication with each other is changing.

Shortened messages issued “on the fly” are becoming the norm and although some may abhor this development the move seems unstoppable and may even offer opportunities to those who are able to keep their writing short.

Perhaps the shortest story ever written (and perhaps the longest palindrome which makes sense) is:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.

First published by Leigh Mercer in the 1948 the sentence is witty and has a progression which tells the story of the Panama canal in the barest of bones.

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Creating characters readers care about

You need to create a protagonist the reader cares about to ensure the reader is pulled through your book, always wondering what is going to happen to the main character. Once you have the reader on the hook you have to work to ensure the reader remains engaged with that character and the story the character travels through.

To paraphrase the Lester Dent Plot Formula, the writer has to heap problem after problem onto the main character to interest the reader in what the outcome will be, but also to prove the main character is worthy of their happy (?) ending.

Looking at Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice we come to know a character who is steadfast, worthy of a happy ending but who, importantly, has to endure setbacks, social humiliation and the dashing of her hopes before winning the ending we always hoped she would achieve.

Is it a bestseller or a blockbuster?

There is a difference between a bestseller and a blockbuster.

Bestseller                                              Blockbuster

Bridget Jones Diary                              The Thorn Birds

Small Island                                          Gone with the Wind

Any mainstream thriller                         Da Vinci Code

All these books are best-sellers but the ones listed under blockbuster have that common extra factor which boosts them from being a great book to being a blockbuster which you might find on the shelves of those people who do not consider themselves to be book lovers.

Albert Zuckerman in his book “Writing the Blockbuster Novel” identifies as a problem that many authors write commercial books that are “too small”. By too small he means, domestic or limited in the scope of its characters or setting.

Elements needed to write a blockbuster

Here are some elements you need to write a blockbuster.

High StakesDay of the Jackal where the fate of France rests in the success or failure of the assassin known as The Jackal or The Da Vinci Code where the influence of religion over the past 2,000 years will be put to the test as a conspiracy to silence critics of the Catholic Church is uncovered.

Larger than life characters – the blockbuster needs characters who are larger than life. Think of Scarlet O’Hara or Matthew Bourne in the Robert Ludlum Bourne series of books.

A grand dramatic question – will The Jackal be stopped in time? Will Matthew Bourne discover his identity and find out why all these people are trying to kill him?

High Concept – this term is borrowed from the movie world and describes an often audacious idea at the root of the story. The Da Vinci Code has this idea as its central theme.

Multiple points of view – often blockbuster novels are told through the eyes of several major characters; it is a more filmic style.

Settings – the blockbuster is often set on the international stage or to a background of a national struggle. Think of any of the books by Wilbur Smith. Arthur Hailey trademarked this, he give his novels one-word titles; Hotel, Airport. James Michener went one further in his historical novels featuring the history of nations Hawaii, and Poland.

George Orwell’s rules on writing

When thinking of your writing be sure you follow the George Orwell rules:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do
  • If it is possible to cut out a word. Cut it out!
  • Never use the passive when you can use the active
  • Never use a foreign phrase or word when there is a good English word
  • Break any of these rules rather than write anything boring

Ten rules for short stories

Top 10 Short Story Tips

1) Time period of the story should be short

2) Keep the story succinct

3) Start the story instantly with conflict in a catchy first paragraph

4) Select a point of view most appropriate to the story

5) Plenty of dialogue in either speech or reported speech

6) Reinforce your characterisations in every paragraph either by speech or actions also remember your setting

7) Think structure – beginning/middle/end, but don’t make it easy for your protagonist

8) Build to a climax

9) Successful resolution in line with characterisation (with a twist?). Remember, ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ and similar endings have all been overused. You can use coincidence to create problems for your characters but you must always use logic to resolve the problem.

10) Polished narrative? Make sure your language is as strong as you can make it by cutting out anything unnecessary and that spelling, punctuation and grammar are correct for your story

Remember, after doing all the above the story still has to feel like real life and not sound like an exercise. If you read a good writer’s short story it immediately takes off and has a life of its own. After all the above considerations, this is the most important thing!

I haven’t got enough time to write a book!

To write a hit book, you’ve gotta really put in a lot of time, right? I mean you’ve got to dig through months of research on your topic. Spend another few months creating your perfect outline.

Then spend at least 6 more months pouring over draft after draft until at last you have your masterpiece.

W R O N G!

Did you know that Jack Kerouac’s Best Selling Book On The Road was written in only 20 days?

Or how about the classic A Christmas Carol? Charles Dickens wrote the entire book in exactly 14 days.

Agatha Christie, the world’s best selling novelist is reported to finish most of her books in less than 30 days!

But perhaps the most incredible story is that of Dr. Richard Carlson. He wrote his best selling book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff in about 12 hours – while flying home in an airplane!