I recently posted a new flash story of 500 words in my online writers’ group and received a number of critiques. These ranged as ever from ‘I really liked this! Perfectly judged,’ to (more or less) ‘I don’t really get it’. This is very much the nature of writers’ groups and is often an indication of the writing styles of other members rather than their ability to offer constructive criticism, but it led me to ponder the issue of ambiguity in fiction.
I love an unreliable narrator – it’s my favourite thing, both to read and to create (see Crossed Lines, Mother’s Pride etc). While it must be quite hard to keep it going over the course of a novel (I’m currently reading Gone Girl and am finding the clues a bit heavy-handed but check out The Dinner by Herman Koch for one of the best examples) it is relatively easy in very short fiction.
Even if I write a story in the third person, I like to create some ambiguity so that readers have to join some dots for themselves. I much prefer this approach when I’m reading someone else’s work rather than have everything laid out for me on a plate, because it then includes me as an active participant in the story and brings the reading experience to life.
But where do you draw the line? What proportion of readers need to ‘get’ it to let the writer know he or she has done enough ‘signposting’? Perhaps I am too cavalier about this, but if only one reader clocks it, I am well on the way to letting the story go as it stands. However, if a critic indicates that a tweak in a particular place will enhance the tension and lay another subtle clue, I am definitely and gratefully up for that.
Last year I parodied the Government’s hideous bedroom tax with a flash by the same title. I set out to be completely ambiguous in an effort to create mystery and humour, and was rewarded by this comment from John Hudspith, writer and editor: ‘The huge level of intrigue and boundless possibility almost made my brain explode, and I just know I’ll have some good nightmares tonight. So thanks for that. As for the title I wouldn’t change a thing. It sits there like the malicious tin opener it really is.’ It was the perfect reaction, yet another reviewer wanted more clues! Which proves that it is down to you to assess and decide which type of reader you’re writing for. The Bedroom Tax was published last year in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Eating my Words but you can read it here. I would love to have your comments if you have a minute.
For myself, physical details are rarely necessary or desirable in very short fiction, where every word counts, unless it has a crucial part in the story. I might mention grey hair or gnarled hands if I want to indicate age, but not so the reader can see a character if appearance is unimportant to the meaning of the piece. The shorter the piece, the more implications each sentence has to carry to earn its place in the whole. Where a novel may take a whole chapter to reveal a critical character trait, flash fiction must achieve the same reader understanding in a couple of sentences. There is no time to dwell on eye colour!
So I will continue to put my stories up for criticism on the understanding that the same people will like them and the same ones will always need a fuller explanation. When those who usually ‘get it’ also need an explanation, that’s when I’ll know I’ve got more work to do. Just because I know what’s going on, doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve put it across. Hooray for second opinions!
In other news, I’m pleased to report that my flash, Message Understood made the final twelve to be published in this year’s Twisted Tales anthology, so many thanks to the judges. I have also just heard that all three of my 300-word submissions to the Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction anthology will be published! I am obviously beyond thrilled about this. A Stash of Flashes will be available in October and launched with readings in November. More details on that nearer the time.
My reading in Bristol went really well to a packed house and I had lots of lovely comments. I decided on Bye Bye Blackbird in the end, which you can read here.
And that’s it for now. All comments and criticisms cheerfully received!