Saturday, August 07, 2004

One-Sentence Stories Explained

So earlier today I posted the first in what I hope will become a trend: a one-sentence story. I re-discovered a file called "one sentence stories" on my desktop last night as I was cleaning out a bunch of old files. The story inside was pretty slick, I remember writing it a while ago and thinking, "hey, that's a really cool fiction exercise."

The one-sentence story is an exercise in improving prose. One thing I've discovered writing both for the Internet (at my job; on this bloggie, I do not follow the same rules) and for things like press releases is that I have to communicate some very specific things in an extraordinarily limited amount of space. This means that every word I use is valuable.

Now, I'm not some fancy big-city literary scholar, but when I use words, there are two things I have to consider: what I mean by a specific word, and what a reader will understand a specific word to mean. And, the fewer words the author is allowed to use, the less space there is to explain what a specific word means, and the more attention must be paid to the many perceptions and understandings of that word.

I know po-mo scholars have debated this over and over; there's that whole "death of the author" thing, where the author's intent is removed entirely in some sort of morbid celebtration for the many different perceptions each reader has of the language. The end product isn't celebrated as much as the various realities of the end product. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it's unhelpful when a single press release could mean millions of dollars in sales either lost or gained for your company. In other words, talk like that might make fine intellectual masturbation in the Ivory Tower, but in the Real World, when I'm crafting a press release, my (the author's intent) is something I am forced to be aware of. Will people take what I say and twist it, take it out of context, and color it with their own interpretations? Sure, but I'd like to think the reason the folks pay me money to do what I do is that I'm decent at minimizing those kinds of tendency in my readers.

In so doing, I am forced to choose my words with great care. In so doing, I've noticed a marked improvement in my general prose, especially my fiction prose. Therefore, the one-sentence story is an exercise to tighten and improve my prose even more; each word has a specific purpose, is intended to evoke a certain image or response, or lead the reader in a certain direction.

On the flip side, the one-sentence story is a celebration of imagination. There is so much ambiguity in the story below that the reader is forced to fill in the details. Who or what kind of soldiers are these? Why are they going to Hell? How did they "make quick work" of the pre-Christian philosophers? Why did they make quick work of the philosophers? Which philosophers were they, exactly? Why were the philosophers blocking the way to redemption? What is the way to redemption the philosophers were blocking?

Hopefully, someone reading the story will begin to fill in those details himself. While I intentionally led the reader in several specific directions - they were soldiers, not mercenaries; the journey was simple; the philosophers were not difficult for the soldiers to make quick work of; and so forth - I also intentionally left much up to the reader.

Scott McCloud related this to comic books (here's a tie-in to a lunch discussion I had today!) when he discussed the story development that occured between the panels of a comic, and how it was often as important - or even more important - than what was contained in the panels of the book. And, it is entirely up to the reader to fill in those gaps - to use his imagination to create the story, even though the author has intentionally lead the reader in a certain direction.

Anyway, it's an interesting experiment, and even though I think it will help my improve as a writer, it should also give you folks something entertaining and rewarding for reading what I write here.

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