In the world of creative nonfiction, where I swim most of the time as a writer, brevity is not only a craft goal, but also closely associated with Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. What follows, however, is a post adapted from a new fiction craft book, entitled, yes, Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook.
Now that we've cleared up any possible confusion, I'm pleased to introduce the book's author, David Galef. David is not only a fellow New Jersey writer and an accomplished author, but also the head of the creative writing program at Montclair State University, where I teach on and off (at the moment, I'm "off"). David would argue—and I agree—that much of what he offers in his new book is equally applicable to narrative nonfiction, as it is to fiction writing. I'm finding it particularly helpful myself, as I'm revising my first two pieces of fiction—one a medium-length short story, and the other a piece of flash which, like this introduction, is crying out for, well, brevity.
By definition, flash fiction is rendered in miniature. But what happens when you start cutting down on words? What becomes of plot, character development, and thematic depth? Obviously, some of what you can attain in a longer story is going to have to go. Forget the long landscape description or the three scenes showing the grandmother’s slow decay from Parkinson’s. On the other hand, some treatments are particularly suited for the short run. One well-known form is the vignette.
The vignette started in fifteenth-century printing as a decorative border of vines around a page, then turned into what the vines enclosed, usually a page with an illustration. We now think of it as an illustrative scene, a literary sketch. The French coined a term for this form, calling it tranche de vie (literally, “slice of life”), and its ingenuity lies in what any cross-section reveals: the hidden depths of an interior view.
Picture two eight-year-olds playing croquet: those unwieldy mallets, the lawn sloping unfairly, and one ball headed for the bushes. This vignette, just begun, might be called “Game.” It shows the seemingly innocent fun had by two small children on a Sunday afternoon, with more than a hint of pre-tween rivalry. We’ll name the children Ivan and Sandra and make them neighbors. You can hear the smack of mallets on the balls along with some conversation about school. But after the first paragraph, Ivan says something nasty about Sandra’s mother. Sandra responds not by hitting Ivan’s ball with hers but by kicking it. The “game” escalates from there.
As you can see, “Game” isn’t a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end. It’s a moving picture that becomes a sketch or scene, suggesting something beyond. The term “sketch” is all the more apt when you think of visual art, in which a sketch is the essential lines of a drawing, but not filled in.
Here are some guidelines for creating a vignette:
Focus on a moment. If you start to chronicle any substantial duration stop, and instead deepen the presentation of what’s already there: waiting half an hour for a date to show up, a missed five-minute opportunity to help a stranger.
Develop only as much as you need to register an impression of either a character or an event or even a mood. One trait indicates a sunny personality; a distorted shadow indicates trouble.
Think in psychological terms. Your sketch has a meaning beyond its mere existence because of what it represents: an old woman who can’t enjoy a summer afternoon, a boss who won’t take no for an answer. Here are five pointers for this kind of treatment:
1. Don’t merely describe. Follow the action. Dramatize.
2. Do more with less. One short scene from a day is plenty.
3. Be representative. One small portion can stand in for a whole life.
4. Go for evocative, concrete details, not abstractions.
5. If possible, find a way to give shadows and depth to your sketch. Make it mean more than what it seems on the surface.
If you're interested in trying a vignette, Here are a few exercises:
Think of yesterday as a sequence of events. Then choose a common incident, such as lunch, an hour at work, or a car ride. Now describe it, animate it, and dramatize it so that the reader gets a vivid picture of what’s going on, on both an exterior and an interior level.
For instance: With a smile, I serve plate after plate of the daily special, spaghetti and meatballs, at Abe’s Diner, but I really hate my job. Or: She hitches a ride home with a coworker, a man she’d like to ask out, but she hasn’t got the nerve.
What incident did you choose, what did it show, and why was it significant? How much of the character did you reveal, and in what ways? Did anything change over the course of the event?
Try conveying emotion or attitude in miniature. Here are some specific directives: What slice of life—the more ordinary, the better—would you use to show envy at the way your parents treat your brother? How good does your friend think she is at driving versus how inept she really is? Why is that man on the curb accosting passersby by asking the same question over and over?
When your vignette is complete, you’ll know it, or your readers will. From one angle, it may look like a line segment, a point that travels from A to B. But viewed as a segment cut from the whole, it’s character dealing with event in a way that reveals the line as a lot longer, back into the past or into the future. A good vignette extends far beyond its narrative span; it displays a life.
David Galef has published flash fiction in Agni, Smokelong Quarterly, NANO Fiction, Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward, and in his book My Date with Neanderthal Woman. He is the author of the novels Flesh, Turning Japanese, and How to Cope with Suburban Stress; edited an essay anthology, Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading; and co-edited the anthology of fiction, 20 over 40. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and The Village Voice, among other places, and he is a humor columnist for Inside Higher Ed. Connect with David at his website and via Twitter.