Monday, June 8, 2015

35 Tips for Writing Flash: Point of View, Tense Choice

In the current posts, Bacopa Literary Review Flash Story Editor Kaye Linden generously shares chapters from her book, 35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story: a Manual of Flash Fiction and Nonfiction Writing.

CHAPTER 1 ("Small Frame")  
CHAPTERS 2 & 3 ("The House Theory" & "Slice-of-Life Stories")
CHAPTERS 4 & 5 ("Compression, Minimalism" & "A Striking Title")
CHAPTERS 6 & 7 ("The First Few Lines" & "I Want It But I Can't Have It, So I'll...")
CHAPTERS 8 & 9 ("Kaye's Rule of Six C's" & "Compressed Scene & Story Line")
CHAPTERS 10 & 11 ("Stimulus/Response, Chronological Order" & "Whose Story Is it?")
CHAPTERS 12 & 13 ("Moving the Story Forward" & "The Shape of Flash")
CHAPTERS 14 & 15 ("Consequences of Desire Thwarted" & "Characters")
CHAPTERS 16 & 17 ("Setting, Weather, and Crowds as Characters" & "A Sense of Meaning")

 Point of View

Point of view confuses most writers. When analyzing flash work that sounds awkward and rambling, I first examine the point of view and whether it offers consistency or suddenly switches from one character's viewpoint to another. A multitude of great books have been written about point of view and I will outline the main points to clarify this difficult topic.

Point of view refers to the choice of character through which the reader observes story events. Your story will change depending on the point of view you choose for the storyteller. Imagine using a telescope to look through the keyhole of your story, zooming in and out with distance and intimacy, through only one character's eyes. In fiction the narrator in first-person viewpoint is a specific character, but in creative nonfiction the narrator is most likely the writer.

In "Agoraclaustrophobia," the point of view is the daughter's, and we enter into this viewpoint immediately: "The last time I visited my father . . ."

The most common viewpoints are:
  • First person: I or We.
  • Second person: You is used to allow the reader to relate more intimately to the subject, but it is a difficult view to maintain without the reader becoming irritated or tired. In a tiny flash, a micro, it might work. I suggest avoiding second person in flash work unless the writer is skilled in its use.
  • Third person: He, she, it. Close or distant? This can get complicated.
For stories fewer than 1500 words, keep it simple. Choose one viewpoint and stick with it for the entire flash. That consistency creates tight, clear writing.

To stay in a close viewpoint, eliminate "I/he/she thought" and stay tight within the action:
Then he was gone. Night bore down like a gigantic stone hand. Hours passed and the flashlight faded. The great emptiness shrouded my body like dirt around a tomb. "Dad? Where are you?"("I thought" could be inserted here, but it isn't necessary, so it was cut.) Whispers whispered down the hot wind.
For a more in-depth discussion about point of view in all genres, I recommend Alicia Rasley's book The Power of Point of View, from Writers Digest Books.

Prompt: Take a flash story that you or a famous author have written and change its point of view to another character's view. How does that change the story? This is one way to stimulate ideas for stories.

Tense Choice

Inconsistent tenses create awkward stories. As with point of view, the tense must remain consistent throughout. If you choose past tense, stay with past tense. There are exceptions, such as offering the reader a truism--"Life is short," but I hope the author will not use truisms unless they are the author's unique creation.

My personal preference is to write in past tense, because the reader tends to read past tense with the most ease. "A shadow fell across the windshield of the jeep and I sat up, eyes wide open."

Writing in present tense might have limitations, but it can offer immediacy and increased tension. "A shadow falls across the windshield of the jeep and I sit up, eyes wide open."

Handle past perfect tense with the respect you might give to fire. "A shadow had fallen across the windshield of the jeep and I sat up, eyes wide open." Why add the "had"? Use it only when necessary and remember one use of "had" might be acceptable, but after the use of one, there's no call to use it again. My rule: No need to use "had" at all in flash stories. If many "hads" appear in the story, rethink its structure. There might be too much backstory or chunks of extraneous information.

Prompt: Rewrite one of your stories in a different tense. How does it change your story?

Click here for CHAPTER 20 ("The Ticking Clock") & 21 ("Chekhov's Gun")

See also, Kaye Linden's 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems

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