I’ve notice something about the short fiction I’m writing: Trying to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that is populated by lots of well crafted characters in less than eight thousand words is a losing proposition. Once you get done cutting on the backside to meet the word count limits imposed by editorial policy, all you have left is the version of the story as it would be recounted by a hyperactive seventh grader.
“He goes into the thing and it’s all, like, boom! But he’s on the thing, the ship or whatever, and then POW! but the lasers miss and he’s, like, running, and then he gets away. Oh, and he bangs the hot blonde at the end.”
Now that I think about it, that describes every Bond movie ever made.
This drove me crazy for a little bit because I was really chasing my tail trying to get these big stories cut down to magazine appropriate bite size pieces and then I found some flash fiction I had written about ten years ago and it basically set me free.
In just 830 words, this piece evoked a world of ruin, a post-apocalyptic wasteland bedraggled by a lack of faith populated by people who cannot die. I love all four pages of this story not for the plot or the characters but for the world it implies exists just outside its margins.
Short stories, especially in the fantasy and speculative fiction genres, are always going to be more about style than plot. And that’s kind of funny because novels in both of those genres are routinely criticized for being too oriented toward events and not enough toward relationships and personalities.
One of the greatest examples of this is the movie Vanishing Point. On the surface — and this movie is almost all surface — there’s a guy trying to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in less than 15 hours. And just based on that business, the movie is a massive success. But it’s also an anti-war anti-Nam movie. That’s the greater world it exists in.
And which movie is its most likely logical successor? Mad Max. Think about about the larger world implied in that movie. George Miller doesn’t bother to scroll paragraphs of back story across the screen to tell you why the world is as messed up as it is. Or does he? I actually can’t remember now but even if he did, it was probably the studio who made him do it. You could get by with the few hints.
One of the greatest “implied world” movies of all time is Blade Runner. If you read the Philip K. Dick story (which isn’t very good) you know that Earth has been depopulated because all the quality people have fled for the colonies. So the world is populated by just the 4F candidates who couldn’t pass the most minimal entrance exam. You would also understand, though I don’t think it’s ever stated straight out, that the reason everyone left was that the world had been ruined by pollution.
What with all the mass extinctions of even common animals — due to the aforementioned pollution — actual, biological pets have become rather rare. So rare that owning them is against the law. The fact that biological humans cannot legally own biological animals is the genesis of both the title of Dick’s story (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Deckard’s question about the owl in the movie.
“Is it real?” Deckard asks. On one level, you have to answer, “Of course, it’s not real.” Because everyone would go to jail if it were. But Rachel’s response also has to do with the definition of the word “real.”
They never get into it. A couple of wise old scientists don’t sit around a futuristic space table and discuss the impact of artificial humans on a dying planet. All of that is implied.
So my feeling is that I’ve done a good job if I’m able to tell a story in 8,000 words (or better yet 4,000 or 400) that implies a world that could only be described in 80,000 words. In other words, if I could write an entire novel to fill out the implications of a short story, I’ve done my job — as long as I’ve entertained the reader and expanded their internal universe a little bit in the process.