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The Exercise of Writing Sudden Fiction


I am a proponent and devotee of the genre of short-short fiction, becoming popularly known as, "Sudden Fiction." I find this approach to short fiction a great exercise for all serious fiction writers. The compact, energized nature of sudden fiction forces the author to write with great care each and every word that relates the story that appears on the page -- however unconventional the story. Though the term was coined by author Robert Kelly, it was done so in a letter to Robert Shapard and James Thomas concerning an anthology of this sort of work the two were editing at the time. Shapard and Thomas get the real credit for the increasing popularity of the term as used to describe this younger approach to short-short fiction. They have been very instrumental in pushing the genre through editorial and educational fronts.

           They are the editors of three volumes of work in the sudden fiction genre: Sudden Fiction (the debut of the term on the literary landscape), Sudden Fiction International, and Sudden Fiction (Continued). I recommend these books, the first published by Gibbs Smith, the next two by Norton. They include work by John Updike, Raymond Carver, Ron Carlson, Margaret Atwood, Charles Baxter, Gabriel García Márquez, Alice Walker, and Pam Houston, to name only a small, small handful. The Sudden Fiction series has become quite popular as text for creative writing courses in high schools and on college campuses.

           I was privileged to study creative writing under Dr. Thomas, in college, and, in fact, claim him as mentor and major sculptor of my approach to fiction writing. Of course, because of Thomas, I was introduced to this concept of sudden fiction. Yet, my first exposure to sudden fiction was in my basic Short Story Writing class, with another instructor who'd assigned the first book of the series.

           My first thought on the concept was that "Sudden Fiction" is a clever title for an anthology of short stories, but, beyond that, there was no immediate impact for me. Then I started reading, and it became clear that "Sudden Fiction" is more than simply a good hook for the booksellers. The first book and its successors are not collections of short "stories," per se, least not traditional stories. It's not that they can be completely denied as stories, yet, the work in these books are usually hard-strained to fit into the classic definition of "story." Virtually everything in the three collections is missing at least one element of Aristotle's definition of plot. Often many of the classic elements are missing, with one momentous exception: the point of attack.

           The vitality of sudden fiction, and what makes the nomenclature so appropriate, is the immediacy of sudden fiction. Suddenly you're in the event, it began before you got there and you've no choice but to get involved or move on. Rarely is setting explained for you. It's there, part of the landscape of the work. You pick up on it or you don't. Setting is actually often completely ignored by the prose; at least, no time is allowed to acknowledge it out loud. Yet, the reader does still usually leave a sudden fiction piece with a strong sense of setting -- often the strong point of attack helps ingrain setting in the reader's mind, rather than any descriptive prose placing it there. As author Charlie Baxter wrote in the "afterwords" to Sudden Fiction:

Oh yes, the reader says: a couple quarreling in a sidewalk restaurant, a nine-year-old boy stealing a Scripto in Woolworth's, a woman crying in the bathtub. We've seen that before. We know where we are. Don't give us details; we don't need them. What we need is surprise, a quick turning of the wrist toward texture, or wisdom, something suddenly broken or quickly repaired. Yes, we know these people. Now just tell us what they do. (SF. p.229) [emphasis mine].

           Take this excerpt from the beginning of the piece, "Videotape," by Don DeLillo:

           It shows a man driving a car. It is the simplest sort of family video. You see a man at the wheel of a medium dodge.

           It is just a kid aiming her camera through the rear window of the family car at the windshield of the car behind her. (SFC. p.90).

           Sudden fiction employs Hemingway's tip of the ice berg, perhaps in the most perfect utilization possible. Expanding on the notion that authors know far more about the lives of the characters and the situations than they will reveal to the readers, the sudden fiction author knows far more about the story being told than she will put on paper. He knows the particulars of an exposition the reader will never read. She knows how the action will fall after the climax. He understands how the denouement would happen. She knows what the climax, for which the prose stops just prior to, will be. And as is the case with Hemingway's body of the ice berg under the water's surface, often the sudden fiction reader is able to infer much of that which is not put into words (just like setting).

           The crucial element of sudden fiction is its economy. It's the magic mixture of suggestion, innuendo, insinuation and fact, pact tightly into precise, concise word choice that is the great power of sudden fiction. It's this element that fills it out. All the classic elements of the plot may not be in plain sight, or, truly may not be present, yet, the well-written sudden fiction piece is complete. It has said all that it needs to say in as few words as it can. And it is much bigger than the sum of its parts. "It is highly calculated -- its effects, its timing. In most cases it contains a novel," says author Paul Theroux (SF. p.228).

           "Economy" in sudden fiction, (in fiction in general), does not equate to "brevity" or "choppiness " (though those may be employed as style or tone). Saying it in as few words as possible does not necessarily mean you say it in a very few words. It means you use no words that do not speak the story. Dino Buzzati's, "The Falling Girl," shows that the sudden fiction piece need not be brief (or ignore setting, for that matter); but, still, see the tight delivery, the economy employed. See how much is revealed in a very compact yet dense space of prose:

           Marta was nineteen. She looked out over the roof of the skyscraper, and seeing the city below shining in the dusk, she was overcome with dizziness.

           The skyscraper was silver, supreme and fortunate in that most beautiful and pure evening, as here and there the wind stirred a few filaments of cloud against an absolutely incredible blue background. It was in fact the hour when the city is seized by inspiration and whoever is not blind is swept away by it. From that airy height the girl saw the streets and the masses of buildings writhing in the long spasm of sunset, and at the point where the white of the houses ended, the blue of the sea began. Seen from above, the sea looked as if it were rising. And since the veils of the night were advancing from the east, the city became a sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights. Within it were powerful men, and women who were even more powerful, furs and violins, cars glossy as onyx, the neon signs of nightclubs, the entrance halls of darkened mansions, fountains, diamonds, old silent gardens, parties, desires, affairs, and, above all, that consuming sorcery of the evening which provokes dreams of greatness and glory. (SFI. p.29) [Translation: Lawrence Venuti].

           My sudden fiction piece, " Three Seconds in the Lives if Two Young People Who Haven't Met" from my virtual chapbook, Voices, is only 501 words long. I'm not going to bother to quote it here -- it's short enough for you to just click on the hot title and read it, without any real interruption to this essay. Point is, economy is very important to that piece. I must convey a lot in 501 words. I took great care to show as much about the sensibilities and character of the young man and the younger woman as I could. There's scarce little evidence of setting, yet, it seems obvious, early on, where we are and what is happening. As to whether or not we stand out side a sports arena or coliseum, a theater-style concert hall, or a concert area in a park, makes little difference. I find it a great avenue for the readers mind to collaborate, in fact. As author, I have a very specific location in mind; I know exactly where the two are. And, I know a lot about both characters, including their names and much of their histories. I also know what is to happen later -- not what happens between them, but, the events that will occur in their individual lives which give these three seconds such profound significance to each of the two.

           "Three Seconds..." is one of my favorites by myself, and it has helped me to write such compact prose as the following, from a longer short story, from which I risk sharing this excerpt, as it is unpublished work. In the story, the woman, Grace, has learned that her father's old lover (from an adulterous affair) has died. She knows that he will grieve the loss, though the affair is long over. And she is reluctant to both send him to that pain or to witness it, for all the many complicated reasons a child would not wish to see such grief. At this point she has been on the verge of telling him after he and her children return from a day of fishing. He has sensed something most of the while he has been home:

           Walking into her father's living room, Grace focuses on the empty hearth and the antique vases on the mantle there. She really does not see any of that. She sees her father, not but four years ago, in a long, painful, silent weep which gradually grows into the anguished sobbing of a man who has just lost his wife of thirty-six years. She sees him sitting in the lounge of the hospital only minutes after her mother has confidently drifted into death. He had been strong, sitting by his wife, holding her hand as she died.

           Grace remembers how her embracing him in comfort, standing above him as he wept, had seemed to do nothing to assuage the loneliness. She remembers the violent shaking of his body. Grace had wept, too, there with him, in that lounge. It had always seemed self-indulgent for her to have. She had felt it then, she still feels it now, even though she deeply loved her mother, his wife.

           The father walks up behind his daughter. "You need to tell me something?" He places his hands on her shoulders and feels her tension.

           In a move that cradles her bosom, she crosses her arms and reaches up to her shoulders and places her own hands upon her father's. He gently squeezes her: a non- verbal repeat of his question.

           She feels his body quake in her own embrace, in that hospital lounge.

           She stands silent, looking but not seeing the hearth. She knows he will let her stand silent until she can speak. Her father knows there is pain about.

           Thirty years before, the two had stood in almost the same spot in the same position as his daughter had been on the brink of confiding to her father about her first real heart ache over a boy.

           Not many years later she had stood on almost that same spot, spiting spite at her father, as he sat, in humility, allowing his daughter to speak to him that way, because he knew only he could love her mother more than she. A declaration was made that day which could never really be upheld, because only her mother could love her father more than she. It was only days later that parent and child spoke to each other. But, it was almost a year before they touched, the day she told him she was getting married. (© 1999 K.L.Storer).

           Besides forcing the fiction writer into exercises in economy, sudden fiction's other great writing-muscle workout comes from the sudden point of attack. Not all sudden fiction crashes, or explodes, into existence, some just very casually starts. There are as many ways to suddenly put us in the story as there are sudden fiction pieces. But that practice is itself a great tool for longer work, even novels. Now that I am a person who receives submissions of stories, I get a lot of work that begins with the main character waking up in the morning and going through sometimes hundreds of words before the real story begins. As a reader, I am not engaged. That's not to say that the action can't begin when the character wakes up. But, if it doesn't, why start there?

           Here are some openings from a lot of different works (sudden fiction, traditional short stories, a novel or two), all which put us right in the action, with a little toe, or a dive, or some measure in between:

They almost fingerprint the children before I can stop them. Phyllis is making a rare personal appearance in my office to help me with a motorcycle injury claim, and I want to squeeze every minute out of her, and I'm taking no calls. (Ron Carlson. "Milk." The News of the World. p.150).

Well I'm the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone. (Donald Barthelme. "The King of Jazz." SF. p.10).

Naked, he ran hard. The black cinder track sizzled, like the hot iron skillet when his momma fried bacon. (Frank Dobson. The Race Is Not Given. p.3).

He noticed that she carried an earpick in her purse. She told him that her ears itched from time to time, and she carried it with her so she could clean her ears whenever she felt like it. (Yuan Ch'iung-Ch'iung. "A Lover's Ear." SFI. p.158) [Translated by Howard Goldblatt].

I am in the muddy pit, looking up, she is standing at the edge, reaching out for the bucket, and then she is falling. (James Thomas. "Talma Levy is Falling." Pictures, Moving. p.145).

A chicken is a chicken, you all know how a chicken looks, sure you do, so go ahead and draw a chicken the teacher tells the children, and all the kids suck on crayons and then draw chickens.... (Miloš Macourek. "Jacob's Chicken." SFC. p.102.) [Translated by Dagmar Herrmann].

Later than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof. In his dream these had been carrier pigeons from someplace far across the ocean, landing and taking off again one by one, each bearing a message for him, but none of whom, light pulsing in their wings, he could ever quite get to in time. (Thomas Pynchon. Vineland. p.3).

You sit at the head of the table, your new students take the other seats at the rectangular configuration, and you know that it is true. (K.L.Storer. "Shiloh." Voices. www.theWriteGallery.com/cb/voices/shiloh.html.)

           All alone, the practices in word economy and at starting in the action are enough to make writing sudden fiction from time to time good for any fiction writer. It has been suggested by a poet friend of mine that it might be a great exercise for poets as well, especially those who are interested in being more narrative in their poetry. Some who have addressed sudden fiction have discussed the blurring of distinction between poetry and much sudden fiction. I have had the blurred line pointed out about some of mine -- at least once in not so kind of a manner. And this all begs mentioning that writing poetry is a good exercise for prose fiction writers because poetry is so language intense; but, that's probably another essay.

           So, here are my two recommendations: 1) pick up one or more of the Sudden Fiction anthologies I have mentioned; 2) write some sudden fiction every now and then, even if only as a writing workout.

"Videotape" © 1984 Don DeLillo -- as well as Sudden Fiction (Continued), it appeared in Antaeus (Autumn 1984).

"The Falling Girl" © 1983 Dino Buzzati -- as well as Sudden Fiction International, it originally appeared in Restless Nights (North Point Press). The English translation of the story © Lawrence Venuti

"Milk" © 1987 Ron Carlson -- from The News of the World.

"The King of Jazz." © 1970 Donald Barthelme -- as well as Sudden Fiction, it originally appeared in Great Days (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)

The Race Is Not Given © 1999 Frank Dobson

"A Lover's Ear.", English translation and © 1985 Howard Goldblatt -- as well as Sudden Fiction International, it originally appeared, before translation, in Zyzzyoa

"Talma Levy is Falling." ©1985 James Thomas -- from Pictures, Moving

"Jacob's Chicken." © 1992 University of Nebraska Press -- as well as Sudden Fiction (Continued), it originally appeared in English in Prarie Schooner (Winter 1992). Translated from Czech by Dagmar Herrmann

Vineland © 1990 Thomas Pynchon

"Shiloh" © 1997 K.L.Storer


    SF = Sudden Fiction. Gibbs Smith (1986)
    SFI = Sudden Fiction International. Norton (1989)
    SFC = Sudden Fiction (Continued). Norton (1996)
      all edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

    The News of the World. by Ron Carlson. Norton (1987)
    The Race Is Not Given by Frank Dobson. Sterling House (1999)
    Pictures, Moving by James Thomas. Dragon Gate (1985)
    Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Books (1991)
    Voices by K.L.Storer. The WriteGallery (1997)

this essay first appeared on the "From K.L.'s Desk" page on Tuesday, January 4, 2000.

For the index of K.L.'s creative writing and essays at this site, click here.

© 2000 K.L.Storer, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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