100-Word Stories: Writing with Gaps

April 29, 2014 § 15 Comments

100A guest post from Grant Faulkner, co-founder of 100 Word Story, the magazine that makes Brevity look verbose:

Writers are presumed to be lovers of words. They’re called wordsmiths, praised for their lyricism, and celebrated for capturing telling details. Stories are built through text, after all, so we strive to learn the fine art of vivid verbs, hone an ear for dialogue, and absorb new vocabulary. These are all valuable tools, but one of the most important tools of writing can be neglected by attending only to the words of a story. I call that tool “minding the gaps.”

I’m speaking about the gaps between words, sentences, paragraphs—the gaps around a story itself. Such gaps determine a story’s contours, its aesthetic. What is left out of a story is as important as what is included because life moves as much through disconnections as connections. Think of the gulf between two lovers, a child growing away from a parent, even the widening chasm between a god and his or her creation. We live in the spaces of life, and they often lack words.

That’s one reason why I started writing flash fiction, with a particular focus on 100-word stories: to find a better mimetic representation of those small but telling moments that reside separately from any larger narrative trajectory. While longer stories tend to operate around the question of what’s next and interweave threads of connections, flash communicates more through caesuras and crevices. Instead of focusing on the “more” of a story, 100-word stories help me focus on those spectral blank spaces that surround our lives. Writing with such gaps has helped me truly hone Hemingway’s famous iceberg dictum: only show the top 10 percent of your story, and leave the other 90 percent below water to be conjured.

I’m often asked what makes a 100-word story successful? Is it simply a prose poem? While many 100-word stories certainly resemble a prose poem, especially in the way they can focus on a mood, the drift of a moment, I think the best 100-word stories move with the escalation any story has. They have a beginning, middle, and end—a telling pivot, an emotional velocity.

The best flash stories also possess what Barthes, in describing what made a photograph arresting, called the punctum—“the sting, speck, cut, prick.” A good 100-word story startles the reader in similar manner. “This something has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void,” writes Barthes.

Whereas a film presents a world that constantly flows by “in the same constitutive style,” Barthes says, the photograph breaks the “constitutive style”—it lacks protensity, resides in isolation, separate from past and future, and therein lies its power to astonish.

In the end, life is more akin to a collection of snapshots shuffled all about than it is a feature film. We possess so many random, desultory moments, memories of pricks and tickles, and we wonder and wander through the spaces around them. Therein the mystery lies.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, The Southwest Review, PANK, Gargoyle, eclectica, Puerto del Sol, and the Berkeley Fiction Review, among others. He’s currently in the process of finishing a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures.

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