I wrote a flash fiction piece this week for a contest where the winner gets to spend three all-expenses-paid weeks at the beach house of a famous dead writer. The limit was 500 words. If you sent in a story with 501 words, you’d be automatically disqualified.
My story ended up being 498 words long, but that was after some significant word-culling on my part, a feat that’s sometimes not so easy, given that most stories need to take their own sweet time. Compelling characters have to be fleshed out. Action must tilt forward toward resolution. Something has to be at stake for the reader to be committed. And the writing should be velvet-y smooth.
How do you do that in 500 words? How to create an entire universe filled with emotion and context and sensory expressions if you can’t expand or expound past the bare bones?
How to, indeed. Which is why I decided to enter the contest in the first place. I figured it’d be a good exercise for someone who spends her days writing novels—with their long drawn-out plots and characters who grow over time and page.
Further complicating the exercise, I chose to write the story in second person, a voice I’d never before uttered other than in some fuliginous poems I meted out during my dark years.
I can’t publish the story here because then I’d be disqualified since the rules clearly state that the submitted story must be unpublished. But I can synopsize it.
Thank you for indulging me.
Sarah, the character who is speaking, is a millennial slacker who works in a bagel shop. In the story she is addressing her coworker who, once again, didn’t show up for work, making Sarah have to work doubly hard. She is telling her coworker that she, too, would have liked to have slept in because she was out late last night on a date with a boy she knew has no real interest in her. When a customer walks into the bagel shop and asks for his usual order, Sarah’s frustration mounts. She has no idea what the old man with the overgrown eyebrows usually gets—it’s her charming coworker who knows all the regulars’ favorites—but she hides her annoyance with him because, ultimately, she longs to be more like her coworker. She aspires toward grace. During her walk home from work, Sarah spies her coworker in a bar. She goes in and learns why the woman missed work and the reason she’s uncharacteristically quaffing beer in the middle of the day. Sarah hugs her and tells her she hopes to see her tomorrow.
I would have/could have turned this small plot into a longer Alice Munro-like tale of self-reflective melancholia. I loved creating Sarah and I enjoyed spending time in her head while she toasted bagels. I may someday write her full life story, but it was good practice and great fun to stop before I crossed beyond the limit.
Note: This posting is exactly 500 words.