Flash Fiction Revision Exercises: Teaching Revision 15
This is a continuation of my posts on teaching revision. There are more revision prompts (not specific to flash fiction) here and in previous posts. If you’d like to contribute a guest post or response, please contact me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].
The first course I ever taught was on flash fiction. At first that meant reading stories and using them as jumping-off points to write our own flash stories, as well as quick workshopping of everyone’s piece. One of my early students just published a fantastic novel called Chemistry. I’ve been rethinking how I teach flash fiction since, and starting a couple of years ago, I turned to “moves” as a way of teaching flash over a shortened course-time (one weekend). I wrote the linked-to list of moves in flash fiction in order to teach moves to a class. I noticed a lot of these moves also in the list of 50 stories I chose for Wigleaf’s Top 50 (an annual list of the fifty “best” flash stories published online). The last couple times I have taught flash, I’ve used moves both as a way to organize the course and to teach something concrete. In order to do so, and to encourage my students to identify moves in common, I split my class into four groups depending on the moves they were making in their flash submissions. Then I gave them exercises specific to their group’s stories, with recommended readings I chose mostly from previous Wigleaf lists. They used these exercises to revise their stories in class, and we workshopped them on the second day–I’ll write a little about this later–by workshopping all of the stories at once, rather than going through them one at a time, a method I think should be used more often, but which is limited by length.
Here are six of the exercises I gave students, slightly edited, and titled for the sake of this post. Six revision exercises for flash fiction stories.
Exercise for Stories Trying to Fit a Lot of Past into the Present
How does one deal with the line between present and past, especially in so little space? What can one crucial bit of information, like the girlfriend in “Device,” do for the story? What can a character off the page like that do to express the change between present and future? Try identifying that one piece of info. Now expand on it. How can you get even more backstory in? Make a list of things that you know about the story that aren’t shown directly in the prose. Take a good look at “History.” What’s the story we don’t know but are trying to figure out? How does Chinquee fit in so much plot, so many logistics? Try adding some curiosity to your protagonist, give her/him something to figure out and have her go after it. What would your character say if s/he said more? How far would she go, how much would she relate if she were pushed, or if the situation was more dire? Try making an existing character more pushy, or introduce a more pushy character. What if there was some outside reason more needed to be revealed? “Device” combines these two things. What does the baby do for “History?” What does the husband do? What does the father do for “The Strong Woman?” Try adding a secondary character who can help reveal the protagonist. Try adding someone your protagonist address the story to, or even a few lines, as the strong woman does at the end. What is the shattered dream your character carries? What is the life she/he makes instead? Try giving your protagonist another thing to do, outside of the dream. Make it as strange as the carnival. Make it as mundane as science on an airbase.
Exercise for Stories That Borrow Their Architecture
Think about the architectures you’re mixing or borrowing—from another genre or time or kind of story or so on. Consider how the reality/unreality of the architecture might slowly take over, as in “For the Birds.” Or perhaps metaphorically take over. Are the wings physical or figurative at the end? What is the tension built by drawing on the haunted house/ghost story? What is the tension built into the inability of the reader to tell what is architecture or not? Can you use this strategy to your advantage? What about going full-blown modernization of an older form, as Kafka does often when he writes parables like “The Top.” What would your story look like if the “lesson” was built into the metaphor, the way Kafka does it? Or: try alternating between the architecture and the story that borrows it, as in “A Modern Girl’s Guide to Childbirth.” One question to think about is: should the architecture come in right away and slowly fade into background information, should it come in gradually, or should it be interspersed and consistent? Think about how the history works to give context in “A Modern Girl’s Guide to Childbirth.” And how it works to evoke change. Try to make your architecture do more work, reveal more, change more. Borrow your architecture more directly—try “Once upon a time”—or try more of a kind of dream logic, where the actions connect causally but illogically. Try having your character journey from the real world to the fantastical or over-the-top, like the girl in “girl you won’t remember,” and back. Or vice versa, have a character from a fantastical world sort of “infect” the real world, like with the fairy godmother/Cinderella in “The Fairy Godmother,” and then consider the consequences of this “infection.” The fairy godmother in that story ends up with a different take on what her familiar story means and the dangers it brings. Think about where the intersection with a “tale” starts and ends—in the characters, in the structure, in the action? The abuelos in “Abuelos” are almost like witches. Then: try taking out the architecture altogether. Write the story completely in contemporary waking reality. Is the theme the same? Is the architecture carrying enough metaphoric/symbolic weight? What is not being expressed? Try a different framing.
Exercise for Stories That Omit Key Information
List information you’re leaving out, or left out. List information you’re trying to convey from off the page. Try juxtaposing symbols to show how things are connected, as with the chainsaw and hopscotch and the log in “Chalk Marks.” Try a key metaphor to convey something, like the fetus in “Ogdensburg.” Try letting the symbol expand into reality, as the woman in the drain does in “All the Corazons in Spanish Songs.” Make the desires and fears of your characters get into the objects of the story. Give them physical manifestations. Or: write a dream that suggests the real conflict, as in “Strawberries.” Notice how far tone can go. Narrow in on every detail and make them as specific as “a chin dimple with hair growing inside it that he will never be able to shave.” Try giving your characters something distinctive yet minor, something that could be pointless except for the tone (and thereby meaning) it gives—like the brownie in “Chalk Marks” or the Amish in “Ogdensburg.” Do something to suggest what will happen next, as the Amish nearly do. Now put in all the context and information you can think of. Go back and cut most of it out or transforming it into objects or lines of dialogue or action.
Exercise for Stories Conveying Emotion Primarily Through Tone
Write a new draft by thinking about something that can do more to convey the tone of whatever emotion your character is trying to hide in your story. Maybe an object, or an overarching metaphor, like flight in “Flight.” What’s the story we don’t know but are trying to figure out? Try giving your protagonist more desire to figure themself out. Why do they want to know? Why do they not want to know? How can your characters’ inner chaos get expressed externally, like with the brutality of the fish killing in “Puberty” where the girl’s turmoil is represented symbolically by the death of the fish, or the carnage in “Flight,” which does a similar thing. Try more dialogue if you don’t have much now, or more internal monologue if you have a lot of dialogue already. What would your character say if s/he told the entire truth to your reader, everything that was on her/his mind? What would make her vulnerable enough to do that? How far would she go, how much would she relate if she were pushed, or if the situation was more dire? What if there was some outside reason more needed to be revealed?
Exercise for Stories That Utilize Plot Reversals or Surprise Endings
Ask yourself what your reversals are trying to reveal about your characters. About your themes. Make a list of choices your character makes to bring the story to its ending. What agency does the character have? How does she/he make what happens happen. Think of how even the “you” in “Last First Date” has agency in her own fate, even if it is not her fault. Are there warning signs, foreshadowing, foreboding? But most importantly, decisions? Try writing the story from another character’s POV. What would “Last First Date” look like from the man’s perspective? How would the story change? How would the perception of the reader toward the story or the protagonist change? Think about how a reversal can work in a story, as in “You Beat Me,” by setting up an expectation and/or rhythm and then breaking it. What happens when it is not clear what happened after the ending, whether the couple is still together? Think about how something can be set up and then seem to go away, before coming back surprisingly, a double reversal of sorts, as in “Silence.” How does Borowski make us believe both that the prisoners believe in the American’s words but also believe that they must kill the man who betrayed them. Try rearranging things or revealing more to make a reversal really impactful. Think about how the characters’ desires and vulnerabilities and agency can play into this impact. Now try this: think about what the story would be like if the reversal was one that happened over a longer period of time, as in “Peace,” not necessarily in terms of how long has passed in the character’s lives, but in story time. “Peace quickly shows how worthless the relationship can be, but then complicates that slowly as we get further into the Christmas tree scene. Rewrite the story so that there is not so much a realization as a slow change in how we and your protagonist perceive things.
Exercise for Stories Structured by POV
How do you get a lot of information into the story as clearly as possible? Can the narrator do more to order the information? Could the narrator’s particular mind be a way to structure things to get more into the space you have, like in “In the Time It Takes Me to Forget You My Hair Will Grow Back to the Way You Like It?” Could more direct memories be a way to do this? Could the title be more of a guide, set up the story more—what would a longer title do for the story? Try getting the story across via more characters’ perspectives. You might chain them together as in “Animal Control.” How would the story change if another perspective was added? Or taken away? What links the perspectives? How can you make them flow more naturally? What about larger space breaks, as in “The Courtly Lover?” Try a direct address, where we understand that the narrator is talking directly to someone, and who that person is and what relationship the listener has to the speaker. That seems to help the narrator in “The Courtly Lover” transition from one thought to another. What does a more directed audience do for the story? Try a letter or a speech someone writes/gives to someone else. Where is the narrator now? What is s/he doing? What has s/he learned from living through the story she’s telling? How do these stories use supporting characters to expand their ability to tell the story? What would your story be like without certain supporting characters? Why are they important?