Mary-Jane Holmes of Fish Publishing has very kindly shared a story generator with us to complement the hints and tips from this month’s Writer in Residence post from Alex Reece Abbott.
Let the Reader Do the Work
Compression is the use of words to paint a moving picture that tells a story. The idea is to create cinema on the page. This allows the reader to become part of the creative process. The imagination of the reader will provide the meaning of what the words imply. If I do my job, the reader will supply the exposition from my visual suggestions. Guy Hogan
Employing implication is particularly vital in the short story because the genre doesn’t allow the space to make things explicit. However, it is important on another level as well; if we explain everything to the reader they won’t have the opportunity to participate imaginatively in the scene and this will make them passive rather than active readers.
According to the 10 Best Teaching Practices (Donna Tileston), the brain thrives on putting information together to make a pattern, to understand relationships and connections – in other words, the reader wants to be involved in the meaning-making process as if they were right there in the room with the character, observing and interpreting independently – it is this that makes us forget we are reading and think that we are in a different but real world. As the short-short story writer Randall Brown points out: Writers who feel that they make the meaning exclusively resist the idea of the reader constructing meaning and will limit the process that the brain thrives on.
Implication is important – and when we don’t use it, our language becomes fuzzy because we start to use too many modifiers, too many narrative intrusions. One might say about a stressed character – his wide, brown, bushy strung out eyebrows but his ‘strung-out’ eyebrows will be enough to stand in for the other things and help set up a web of association that connects the physical with the emotional, the concrete standing in for the abstract.
One thing to do is to go through a story trying to use sets of words to imply what is going on under the surface rather than explaining what is going on. Yes, basically this is all about ‘showing and not telling.’
Stop Me Before I Say Too Much
A great way to work on implying a character’s mental state (rather than conveying it directly) comes from this well-known exercise, set by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction:
A middle-aged man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man’s point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds, odours, colours that this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? And so on.
By the end of the description, we should know what has happened (or, be pretty sure) without ever having been told.
When you feel that you may be telling the reader too much – do the same thing to your characters. Use implication and you will have an active, focused reader who will find it impossible to stop reading your work.
Mary-Jane Holmes has been chief editor of Fish Publishing Ireland since 2009, an organisation committed to supporting emerging writers. She directs and coordinates the Fish creative writing and mentoring programs, including the longest running online Flash Fiction course in Europe dedicated solely to the genre. She is also consulting editor at The Well Review, a new international poetry journal based out of Cork, Ireland and teaches creative writing at Casa Ana in Spain.
Her work has been anthologized and published in a variety places, including Best Small Fictions 2016, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Lute and Drum, Prole, The Tishman Review, Firewords and The Lonely Crowd. She won the 2014 Dromineer Flash Prize and has shortlisted for the Bridport Prize for fiction and poetry. In 2017, she won the Bedford International Prize for Poetry and was nominated for a Forward Prize. Mary-Jane is currently completing her post-graduate studies in creative writing at Kellogg College, Oxford.