Hints & Misconceptions

I haven't had a chance yet to count the number of entries so far to the Hint Fiction contest, but there are a lot and more coming every hour as the deadline approaches. Remember, the contest ends this Friday at midnight here on the good ol' east coast, so make sure you get those submissions in! Yesterday Ben White did another great blog post about very very very short stories, which played off my last blog post, which played off Ben's last blog post, which ... well, you know how it goes. Anyway, here's some of what he has to say:

A story implies motion. It’s not just description. Something needs to change.

With regards to the twitter-sized fiction that I read on a daily basis, this means that the reader should be able to at least infer some change taking place, either before, during, or after the actual words of the piece itself. After all, this isn’t a summary or a synopsis. We’re talking about an iceberg here: the tip is showing above the water, but we know the vast majority of all that ice is underneath the surface.

Thankfully Ben and I see eye to eye on these extremely short stories. We've talked many times about their strengths and weaknesses. We've read our fair share of them that it's gotten to the point we can pretty much dissect one at once and decide whether or not it holds promise.

But the thing to remember with stories so short, so much more is left up to the reader's imagination and life experience to fill in the blanks. Say you write a story of 25 words or fewer about Pearl Harbor (why Pearl Harbor, I don't know, it just popped in my head for some reason; stay with me!). And for some reason a reader doesn't know much about Pearl Harbor -- doesn't know anything at all -- and attempts to read the story but just doesn't "get" it. Does that mean the story itself fails when another reader more familiar with Pearl Harbor understands what the story is about and hence "gets" it?

In the anthology, there are a few stories that deal with literary allusions. If a reader isn't familiar with a particular literary allusion, then that story will not have the same effect as it hopefully will on a reader who is in fact familiar.

Back when I was reading for the anthology, a writer submitted a very good story but I ended up passing on it because the story itself dealt too much with a recent current event. It was a story that, in a year or more, would not have the same effect on readers than it would have right there and then.

If Hint Fiction is in fact the tip of an iceberg as Ben says, then the question arises just how much of that tip needs to show. One of the biggest misconceptions of Hint Fiction (besides the fact people think it's easy) is that Hint Fiction is not supposed to make sense. That the stories should leave the reader completely baffled and scratching his or her head.

That's incorrect, of course. I hate always returning to Hemingway's six-word story, but it's the granddaddy of Hint Fiction so I feel compelled to mention it again and again:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Yes, we're not given a complete story here, only a hint, but the hint is enough to paint a pretty solid and effective picture. Mostly because readers are familiar with the idea of stillborn babies (or babies dying young).

The very first Hint Fiction story I ever wrote was a derivative knock off of Hemingway's. I simply changed the words around to "For sale: Trojan condom, never used" which by itself doesn't do much. But then I gave it a title:


For sale: Trojan condom, never used.

Those six words then took on a whole different meaning and a backstory was formed, all thanks to the addition of a title. Again, a tip of the iceberg is showing (which, in this context, could have a perverted meaning). Not too much, but not too little (again, get your minds out of the gutter!). As Goldilocks would say, "Just right." (I mean it!)

Sometimes writers don't give enough of a hint:

Jim turns on his computer. He stares at the screen, and screams.

Okay, so ... what exactly is happening here? Something, obviously, but there's not enough for a reader to fill in the blanks. Maybe with a helpful title, but even with the best title ever I can't imagine the story will improve much. Like Ben said before, a story implies motion. Yes, Jim is in motion -- turning on his computer, staring at the screen, screaming -- but without the reader knowing why Jim is doing those things, the story lacks substance and, most importantly, emotion.