by Gabriella Herkert
I’m a lawyer. For those of you who don’t know many lawyers, that pretty much means I get paid by the word. Every multi-syllabic euphemism I can inject into an otherwise casual conversation is directly proportional to the lakeside square-footage residential property I can afford. I have never minded the burdens this places on me.
I showed promise from an early age. I achieved a 760 verbal score on the SATs. I tell you this not to impress you, although I do occasionally throw it out for just that purpose. I include the information simply because it is illuminative of my genetic structure. My mother is a word person. Many school essays stumbled back after her ardent review awash in crimson ink and try, try again margin markings. I was an adult before I realized the woman could not add but even now I consider her the most brutish general in the grammar Gestapo. She loves my vocabulary. It is a matter of pride among her peers. She has always encouraged me to be the most eloquent, verbose, obscure, qualified, quantified confabulator in history. Which lead me to the greatest challenge of my literary career ‘ flash fiction.
Flash fiction requires all the same elements as any other type of fiction writing –character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution ‘ in fewer than 500 words. For you math types, that means merely listing the requirements burned one percent of the verbiage available to complete the mission. For any writer really looking to challenge himself, you can go one further and keep the story under 100 words. If 500 words is flash fiction, 100 words is more like phosphoresce fiction. Since I can’t order coffee in fewer than 100 words, it was into this tiny sub-set of all writings creative that I directed my efforts.
I started with the bare bones of character, no pun intended. What gives a character depth and how is that three-dimensionalism conveyed to the reader? Outward appearance and body language form the basis for most of my characters. Black leather pants and numchuck choreography illustrate one character. A nun’s habit with a pack of Camel straights is another. Character is in the details and those details require description that comes with adjectives and adverbs and lots of other words. In flash, you only have room for one. Whatever is the most defining characteristic is the only one you can keep. The roundness of your character has to be filled in using the other elements or you never make your word count.
The truth is I’ve never liked setting anyway. Frequent commentary about my most recent novel suggested that I try it as a screenplay since I never bothered with a description of any place anyway. There are cheats available in setting. A fragmented sentence at the opening of the scene ‘ Disneyland, Memorial Day 1997 ‘ for example, may have enough resonance with your target audience that the sights, sounds and smells come racing to mind without dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. You do what you have to do. When accepting my personal challenge, however, such cynical circumvention of the rules struck me as literary cowardice. I’d rather go down fighting.
Plot is harder to short cut. It’s so, I don’t know, connected. Most stories build using plot. I suppose you could have a character attack another without provocation or explanation but after the reader shakes her head and asks herself what that was all about, you’ve lost them. I write stories, all my stories, for readers. No, I couldn’t sacrifice plot at the altar of conciseness. I’d have to be more creative.
Conflict and resolution go hand-in-hand. Without one, the other goes nowhere leaving your reader scratching his head and promising himself to avoid your byline in the future. Moreover, ‘happily ever after and the end’ have pretty much been used to death. In addition to extinguishing six percent of your phosphoresce fiction quota, they are clich’s. All things considered, this was a Herculean task I has set for myself.
The success, or abysmal failure, of my experiment I leave to the opinion of the readers. May I just say how painful it was? Excruciating. Agonizing. Debilitating. Crippling. Oh well, I guess I’m back to normal with two words to spare.
She hovered at the edge of the tower, trying not to look down.
‘Ready?’ The sergeant’s bark wasn’t a question.
She hesitated. A mistake.
‘Recruit.’ His scream echoed. Four floors to the water. Forty feet. Straight down.
‘I said go.’
She looked at the ring of faces around the pool’s edge. They stared. Waiting for her to fail, expecting her to fail.
‘Recruit,’ he screamed.
‘One day you’ll outrank him.’ A baritone advised from behind her. A chauvinist and an agoraphobic. Strange bedfellows. ‘But only if you go.’
The sergeant wheeled on him as she stepped into space.