I read all the entries to the photo prompt that I have been running here on the blog every week for over three and a half years. Many of them are short poems or flash fiction… none are longer than a short story and all are economical with words, given the constraint of time and space.
It has often struck me how varied and individual the responses are to the photo prompt. What I have seen as suggestive of horror has produced humour and romance. Where I have seen beauty and mystery, others have been prompted to write horror. It is interesting to see what comes to the surface of a writer’s mind, particularly when you have come to know them, at least a little. Like ink-blots, a psychologist could have a field day with the variety of the entries, including my own. They would probably come to the wrong conclusions though, as the writer’s mind is a strange place and a law unto itself. The gentlest home-maker can write the most horrifying tale, while the real-life action hero is just as likely to be writing romances as thrillers.
What is even more interesting though is that, with each piece that you read, no matter how different from your own perception of the image, you can see exactly why the writer has written their story. Your preconceptions are suspended for a moment and, although your own perception may not ultimately change, you see through other eyes than your own and with a different understanding of the world while you are reading the tale. You may disagree with the interpretation. You may see something you have missed and have a lightbulb moment. You may simply enjoy the story. Whatever the effects, the shift in perspective is a literary mile walked in the shoes of the writer.
Poetry can cover everything from humour to abstract concepts. Short stories have time to give a fair bit of detail and background. You get the chance to explore characters and situations with a little depth, building a sense of place and atmosphere, little by little. With flash fiction, though, you have few words with which to tell a tale and, while for a reader that may or may not seem like a good idea, for a writer practising brevity is always good discipline.
Wikipedia defines flash fiction as a “fictional work of extreme brevity, including the Six-Word Story, 140-character stories, also known as twitterature, the dribble (50 words), the drabble (100 words), and sudden fiction (750 words).” It goes on to cite the surprising antiquity of the technique as well as citing the idea that these very short pieces should imply a greater story behind the words. This last is, I think, what is so appealing about reading flash fiction when it is well done.
You get no more than a glimpse of a longer story, yet that glimpse tells you all that you need to know in order to construct that story for yourself. You have the main character, a hint of their personality and background, an idea of the problems they face and often, how they are going to solve them…or not. What amazes me is the mind’s ability to extract all these details from just a few meagre words and fill in the blanks, even as you are reading. By the time you have read, say, a hundred words, they have multiplied, in your imagination, into a novel.
I wonder how many books have been born from reading such snippets of stories? They are a rich source of inspiration and far too short to come close to plagiarism when their minimalist ideas are spun into a longer tale. Even stranger…just like the differing interpretations of an image, the backstories we each weave for these stories is uniquely our own. We lack the insight into the writer’s mind and may never know whether our own vision comes close to theirs.
I know that some of my own pieces of flash fiction have been read from vastly different points of view from the ones I intended. Does it mean I didn’t tell the story well enough to impose my own perspective or does it mean I left enough space for imagination to play and fill the gaps with your own fears and feelings? Does it matter?
For me, the job of a storyteller, no matter how long or short the tale, is to spark the imagination. As long as the reader is left thinking or feeling… the job is done.
All the images in this post have been used as photo prompts for the weekly #writephoto challenge, published on Thursdays. Do come along and join in!