Sunday, March 9, 2014

Is your story a story?

Probably everyone knows that story, there, right? Supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway (but probably not, as shown by this Slate article) it is said to be the shortest story ever written, just six words long.

So: is it a story?

It's sad, to be sure, and it's just six words long, so it's short, but  is it a story?

I try not to get hung up on labels for what I write, especially as what I write has gotten more experimental over the past year, as part of an ongoing effort of mine to become more creative and stretch the boundaries of the stories I tell. So in one sense, if you say your ... thing... is a story, it's a story.

But in another sense, it matters a lot whether your story is a story or not. As I go about my merry rule-breaking and attempts to write different kinds of stories, from time to time I pause to consider whether something is a story, an essay, a poem, or something else entirely, and I think that the labels we apply to stories have some merit to them, that there is a benefit to some categorization, and the benefit is that by having rules you can determine exist, you can also decide not to apply those rules, which should only be done for a reason, and that reason should be because it serves the purposes you are intending with your work.

I like to think about Ezra Pound, and how Ezra Pound supposedly wrote a sonnet a day for a year, and then destroyed them all, learning to work in the strict forms of rhyme and meter that sonnets impose before he abandoned them.  (That story,  too, is  probably untrue, but  what is true is that Pound not only was very knowledgeable about classical poetry, but also that he was an indie writer: Ezra Pound self-published his first book, and then  gave it away to people, eventually getting a publisher for his later works.  So if you just made your book of poetry free on Amazon, as PT Dilloway suggests, you're in good company!)

I got to thinking, again, about the rules for composition, if there are rules, when I read a Buzzfeed piece the other day.  Called "17 Flash Fiction Stories You Can Read Right Now", it appealed to me because Mr Bunches was in the tub, so I had a few minutes to read something while he played with his Hot Wheels Sea Serpent Island (TM).  It began with the Not-Hemingway story, attributed to Ernest because Buzzfeed is not where you go for journalistic excellence, it's where you go for lists like this.

It then moved on to other things they called "Flash Fiction", like:

Which to me is not so much a story as it is an aphorism or meditation.  That's not to run that down, as I kind of like the question, but I can't discern a story in there, at all. I suppose there is the basic of a plot: we are trying to find out how we are special, and it  suggests a search, but to me it falls short of a story.

I decided a while back that for me the divisions between story, poem, and essay, would be the point of the thing: are you trying to convey a truth about a thing, some sort of fact or opinion about something? That's an essay.  Are you trying to convey an emotion, or feeling? That's a poem. Are you telling something that happened, or could? That's a story.

I use those dividing lines loosely -- an epic poem about cheeseburgers, after all, mixes them a bit -- but I use them, and it's especially important to have some rules or structure if you're going to get experimental, because if you lose the structure too quickly you've got nothing.

Consider this:

That is a story, one I wrote a while back.  It is called "the natural order of things is largely determined by what direction we are headed and how fast" 

And the idea for that story began when I had a talk with a guy  at work about whether it would be possible to write a story that would be the exact same no matter what order you read it in.  I told the guy I thought you could write a story that you could put bits of onto playing cards, shuffle them  up and then flip them over, and that at the end of that you'd have a story that made perfect sense and it wouldn't matter how the cards came up.

That was two years ago,  and I finally wrote that story last November, when I finally had the story that would work for that structure.  I had to do it that way because every story technically could work that way.  As shown  by movies like Pulp Fiction or tv shows like Arrested Development's fourth season, scrambling the story doesn't mean the viewer won't get the whole picture eventually; the key to making that kind of scrambling work is having the form fit the story.  Think Memento, where the backwards story makes you feel how it is to live like that guy, of Slaughterhouse-5, where Billy Pilgrim's becoming unstuck in time helps leaven the horror of his experiences in World War II for the reader, while also serving as a reminder that Billy Pilgrim never really escaped from them, and neither can we: even when things are relatively calm and easy and he's in that zoo on Tralfamadore, he's occasionally sent back to the bad times.

The story I wrote went like this before I took it apart:
the natural order of things is largely determined by what direction we are headed and how fast

Josh is flying, faster and faster and faster than anyone ever imagined imagines imagined.

(is it a dream is it the future is it something else?)

Josh slips free of first his fears which are quickly left behind as fear is not that fast, not quick: fear is slow and plodding and although it is in Josh’s throat and chest and his fingertips when he begins moving the fear is pummeled back by the force we call acceleration which is the natural companion and foe of fear at all times and at its highest it is the enemy too of time.

(faster and faster and faster)

Josh next slips free of air and there is not enough of anything around him to call this notenoughofanything anything but space.

(anyone ever imagined)

Josh next slips free of what people imagine is gravity.


Josh next slips free of anywhere anything we made has ever been.

(Josh is)

Josh next slips free of anywhere anything we have ever seen has been.


Josh next slips free of anywhere anything seen or unseen known or unknown been or not been has ever been or not been.


Time is the last to go and suddenly he is free of that.

(anyone ever)

When time goes causality goes and things can work in any direction.

(Josh is flying)

When time is gone everything happens at once and in no particular order all at the same… not time. 


And from that you can  see where the new form of the story,  in the picture, comes from: once Josh hits a certain speed there is no causality anymore, and things can happen in any order. When I broke the pieces of that story down into their parts, I tried to do it in such a way that each piece could stand alone, as something, but that together they would read as a story, and I think I mostly did it, because reading the story as a story isn't as effective, to me, as reading the story as a picture or word cloud.

I've toyed with other kinds of stories and forms of what I was trying to say, since then; I won't turn this post into an experimental fiction dumping ground for things I've done, but each time the decision to use something other than a traditional form of storytelling was done for some experimental reason, and had a purpose in my mind.

So back to that "flash fiction" on Buzzfeed. What's the purpose  behind shortening whatever is going on here

to that little snippet? Is that a story, at all? That was on Buzzfeed from a blog called "Word Riot," and the larger piece is called "Six Super Short Short Stories," by a writer named Chris Red Martiny.   The longer piece is far more worth reading than simply that little snippet, and the idea of collecting several supershort stories into one longer piece is itself a convention-breaker that ought to be done for a reason.  I can't figure out Martiny's reason for his six supershort stories, but I found in reading the six of them one after the other that as a whole they had a larger cohesiveness that I found appealing.

(I did something like this back at Xmas, when I wrote "Ten Extremely Short And Sometimes Surprising Xmas Stories," which was well-received by all my one reader, and the point at that time was to try to package up a bunch of different Xmas stories that were nontraditional and make people think about the holiday from a variety of different angles.)

Others in the Buzzfeed collection remain intriguing, and fun to read, like this one:

while still others felt more like jokes, or the old "Deep Thoughts,  By Jack Handy":

And all in all, the 17 stories, if that's what they were, carried me through the rest of Mr Bunches' bath and were enjoyable.

So this isn't a diatribe against writing one sentence or one-paragraph or whatever- stories, but rather a note that whatever you are doing, you should do it for a reason.  That Eddie Spaghetti story, if meant to be sad, didn't hit the mark with me, but it worked on two other levels, entirely: as a joke, it worked perfectly and making it any longer would wreck it, and as a way of getting me to think it worked even better because it made me reflect, actually, on how society would probably work on a guy named "Eddie Spaghetti," and so the story stuck with me longer than any old picture-with-funny-caption should.

And if you do write a one-word, one-letter, one-thought story,  I won't judge you.   After all, even great writers have indulged in a little 'flash fiction,' like Joyce Carol Oates, who contributed to an anthology in which all the stories are 25 words or less.  Here's her contribution, called Widow's First Year:

And again, I don't know if that's a story, so much as it is just something great, and I really liked it.  (It helps that the picture is there, too  -- the picture adds an emotional element that the words behind can't themselves convey alone, I think, and serves as a bit of framing, so if you're going to write flash fiction of this sort, consider that, too.)

Structure has its place.  For a while I did what I called "Random Number Of Word" reviews, where I'd pre-select, using, the number of words I got to use to review something.  The point of that is that if you get, say, twenty words to talk about something, you'd better pick out the most important thing to say, whereas if you had 10,000 words you could talk about everything.  When I'm writing poetry, I'm often talking about the same thing as in my fiction,  but I have to filter it differently to fit the poem.  I write stories that I limit to exactly 250 words, including the title, because I'm trying to work on word choice and the important detail and that's how you do that: limit yourself in order to hone your skills.

And when you see people throwing structure away just for the sake of it, the work often suffers.  Think teenagers who first discover e e cummings and decide that they, too, aren't going to use capitalization, or 'slam poets', about which I agree with this:

I'm actually quite a fan of short short stories, even when they're not stories, because the shorter pieces can be effective and read in snippets and because you can read lots and lots of them and the effect is like walking through an art museum or watching a bunch of movie trailers in a row: it's not the same as staring at one painting for 10 minutes or watching a whole movie,  but it's an experience of a different kind.

In the end, asking is it a story is a good tool for a writer to use to determine what the writer wants to do with the words.  You don't have to feel as though you have to measure up to my or Joyce Carol Oates' or some editor in New York's arbitrary definitions of your work, but you should give some thought to why you are doing something, or you run the risk of having your work made fun of by Leslie Knope.


... but his writing can be found at Thinking The Lions, and on Inky and at lit, a place for stories. He's also got books on Amazon, and every single one of them has more than six words in it, so  you're getting a real bang for your buck,  there. 

Want more writing tips? The Indie Writers Monthly magazine March issue is for sale now; check off to the right on this blog, here!


  1. I think my head is now going in all different directions at once. ;)

    I do agree it's a good idea to experiment with rules and forms so you can learn how they work--and when not to use them.

  2. I'm going to start by turning something on its side:
    Just because we call something a rose, doesn't make it so. You see this in kids a lot. Red flowers=rose, because we have this idea of roses as red. Of course, when you grow up, you find out that all those red flowers were really other things (and roses come in more than one color).

    A -story- has specific parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action/resolution. If it doesn't have all of those things, no matter how good it is, it's just a red flower.

    So the thing about the shoes, it TELLS a story, but it is not, itself, a story. There's a huge difference in those things, and, I think, you can see it best if you look at paintings. There are paintings that are just pictures of things, like a bowl of fruit, but, then, there are paintings that tell us stories. That those paintings tell us stories does not make them stories.

    So let's take that thing about the baby shoes and make it into a story:
    There was a pregnant woman, very excited for her expected baby. She bought all the usual things, but she bought the perfect pair of baby shoes. She loved the shoes almost as much as the coming baby. There were complications. In his grief, her husband sold the shoes.

    Is the story more effective than original sentence? I don't know. But one is a sentence that implies a story and the other is actually a story.

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