One of the questions that my students most frequently ask me is, “How much detail is enough, and how much detail is too much?”. Recently, I asked them to write original flash fiction, which is a very short story, always under 500 words but sometimes as short as one page long. If you want to read a great example of flash fiction, check out “Jumper Down” by Don Shea.
I told my students that their work could not exceed two pages, double-spaced. However, their short shorts would have to include all the basic elements that we find in any story: exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action.
I can’t even tell you how many of my students asked me, “But can I make it three pages? Can I go over the limit?”. The fun of the exercise is to try adhere to the page limit.
They were even more frustrated when I returned my comments on their first drafts: add more detail, develop this relationship or that character, etc. How were they supposed to do these things without exceeding the page limit? I was asking them to add things to their stories, but I wouldn’t let them extend the length of the stories.
I think this is a great exercise not only for people interested in writing flash fiction but writers who typically write longer fiction, even novels. When you’re writing a longer short story (approx. 15 to 20 pages), you definitely have the luxury of explaining everything you want to explain and adding as much detail as your heart desires. However, that doesn’t mean that all the things you add are actually doing the story any good. In many cases, a 15-page story could work just as well – if not better – as a 10-page story.
Writing within a certain limit is like living on a tight budget. Perhaps you can’t buy the latest tech gadget, shop at the organic grocery store, or purchase designer goods. But you find a way to live. And don’t we sometimes, on a budget, learn about what’s most important to us? I know personally that, since I’ve started supporting myself and living within a budget, I’ve really started to question the value and purpose of many material things.
So, how do you write on a budget (of words)?
1. Lose extraneous characters. If a character appears only one or twice in a story, I can almost guarantee you that this character is not important.
2. Check your first paragraph. Many writers, in their first drafts, write until something “bites” or makes sense. Then, they find momentum and continue the story. For this reason, first paragraphs are usually a jumble of facts and details. Clean it up!
3. Do an adjective inventory. Review every adjective in your story. Ask yourself: does the placement of this adjective affect or clarify the outcome of the story? Does the placement of this adjective move us closer to the outcome of the story? Often times, we add adjectives for the sake of adding some description. Other times, we’re not using the most accurate adjective. Choose your adjectives wisely.
4. Adjust your sentence structure. We sometimes write unnecessarily long sentences, especially when we use passive voice (starting sentences with “it is”, “they are”, “it was”, “they were”. Review every sentence and ask yourself: can this be rewritten more succinctly and directly?
5. Show, don’t tell. I’ve had writing professors who loved this advice and other professors who truly hated it. However, when you’re trying to write within a word limit, I think it’s important to consider. Often, explaining something requires more words than simply showing or describing it. Trust your readers. If you find yourself explaining too much because you’re worried that your readers won’t understand, reconsider how well you’re telling the actual story.
(Photo by ColumbusCameraOp)