Three Tips For Writing (Cyberpunk) “Flash Fiction” Stories

2017-artwork-writing-really-short-cyberpunk-stories

Well, for the next article in my series about writing cyberpunk fiction, I’ll be looking at how to write “flash fiction” stories in this genre.

Opinion varies about how short a story has to be to be considered flash fiction. Personally, from a writing perspective, I’d say “under 1200 words” but many defintions include things like “under 750 words” or “under 500 words”.

Like with any “unrealistic” genre, writing flash fiction in the cyberpunk genre might seem fairly challenging for the simple reason that you have to create a fictional world and include a story within a tiny number of words. But it isn’t quite as difficult to write as you might think.

1) Dialogue: One of the easiest ways to write a very short cyberpunk story is to make sure that it mostly consists of dialogue between two characters. Not only does a dialogue-heavy story allow you to include subtle characterisation (eg: the way your characters speak etc..) but it also allows you to cram a lot more storytelling into a small space too.

Why? Because, when people talk, they often tell stories. And, like in real conversation, these stories tend to be short and unvarnished. They’re usually summaries of larger stories, with enough clues hidden in them so that the listener can figure out what’s going on.

For example, here’s a piece of dialogue from this short cyberpunk story of mine. It’s about 32 words long, split into three sentences: ‘You were right, the security routines wouldn’t even detect this old clunker. But, the processor almost burnt out when I tried to run a cutter algorithm. It’s the frigging paradox of obsolescence.

These 32 words describe a series of events that probably took hours. They could easily be stretched out into an entire chapter of detailed descriptions. But, since it’s relayed through dialogue, it can be compressed into just 32 words. Because that’s probably about the number of words someone would use to describe something like that in real life.

2) Basics: One approach to take when writing cyberpunk flash fiction is to take things back to basics. In other words, your readers are probably going to expect your story to take place in a futuristic mega-city and to feature immersive virtual reality worlds. So, you don’t have to spend too long describing these things.

Likewise, if you want to appeal to a wider audience, then just tell a story about virtual reality, the internet, cyborgs etc… that mostly uses a ‘normal’ narrative voice. If it’s done well, it’ll have all the atmosphere of a cyberpunk story but it’ll be the sort of thing that anyone can jump into right away.

For example, this slightly long “flash fiction” cyberpunk story of mine takes place entirely in a virtual reality world. This is indicated by both the events of the story itself, and a few lines of dialogue which contain terminology that anyone who is familiar with computer games will recognise (eg: ‘Yeah, but the early access upgraded VIP version of the “1980s Americana” DLC. I thought that it was still in beta.’ ). However, the narrative style used in most of the story is a fairly “normal” one.

3) Traditions: Traditional-style cyberpunk narration is a thing of beauty. It often relies on “information overload” (eg: lots of quick descriptions and futuristic jargon) to make the reader feel like they’re immersed in a futuristic world.

Because of this, you can learn a lot about cramming lots of storytelling, characterisation and description into a very small space just by reading some traditional cyberpunk fiction.

For example, here’s the opening paragraph of “Count Zero” by William Gibson: “They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Dehli, slotted it to his pheremones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. It’s core was a kilogramme of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.

This paragraph is just sixty words long. Sixty. Yet, in those sixty words, we get a very clear mental image of the location (eg: a bustling street in India), of the fact that it’s set in the future (eg: the descriptions of the robotic dog, the scientific terminology etc..), of the fact that the main character is on the run from someone (eg: which gives us a tantalising hint that he has a rather eventful past) and the fact that something dramatic is going to happen in the next paragraph. All of this is compressed into just sixty words.

So, yes, read some traditional style cyberpunk fiction (eg: William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy) if you want to learn more about compact storytelling in the cyberpunk genre.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Quick Tips For Writing Very Short Horror Stories

2017 Artwork Very Short Horror Stories

As regular readers probably know, I write these articles very far in advance. So, this is why I’ve only just got round to talking about the collection of very short horror stories that were posted here last Halloween.

Seriously, I’d written the first two of them the morning before I originally wrote this article. I finished the third one a couple of hours after writing this article. The first three short stories can be read here, here and here.

Different writers work best at different lengths and, with me at least, the shorter a piece of fiction is – the better. So, I thought that I’d provide a few tips about how to make the horror genre work in stories that are approximately 500-1000 words long.

1) It’s like telling a joke: The best ultra-short short horror stories often have a similar structure to a joke. After all, jokes are just very short stories that are designed to elicit a strong emotional reaction. They have a set-up and a punchline.

When writing a very short horror story – start with a slightly “ordinary” (or less-scary) series of events at the beginning, with only a dramatic opening sentence or two to hint at the horrors to come.

The first half to two-thirds of your story should almost be a different story altogether. Then, in the last part, introduce something new that either changes the meaning of the first part of the story, or which takes the story in a creepily different (but not too different) direction.

Or, just introduce something really shocking and horrific in the last few paragraphs (the horror writer Ryu Murakami is an expert at this, albeit within the last few pages of novel-length stories).

2) Descriptions: Because of the smaller amount of words that you have to work with, you can’t rely on an elaborate plot or complex characterisation.

As such, these kinds of stories work best when they are more descriptive than anything else – when the narrator or the main character is more of an observer than a participant in the events of the story.

So, write stories where the main character witnesses something unusual. Write stories that masquerade as newspaper articles. Write first-person stories where it feels like the main character is quite literally telling a short, and disturbing, anecdote. But, above all, focus more on descriptions than on anything else.

3) Writing style: Very short horror stories need to move fast. They need to grab the reader and keep them hooked for the few minutes it takes them to reach the shocking conclusion.

As such, your writing style should probably be very slightly more on the “basic” side of things most of the time. Kind of like it is in this article (as opposed to my usual verbose and rambling style).

This doesn’t mean that you have to dumb down your story – but it should sound a bit like an ordinary person telling a story, or a journalist writing a newspaper article.

The best way to learn how to write like this is probably to read at least a few modern thriller novels (which often make expert use of this style). If I had to recommend just one author whose novels will teach you all you need to know about this writing style, it’d have to be Lee Child.

Save the elaborate metaphors, scary similes and poetic descriptions for the really disturbing parts of your story. They’ll stand out more, when contrasted with the more basic prose that you’ve written.

4) Imagination: This is the oldest piece of horror fiction advice in the book, but it’s especially important in ultra-short horror stories. Things are scarier when they are left to the audience’s imaginations. Since you only have a few hundred words to work with, it’s often easier to only show a few details of something and leave the audience to imagine the rest themselves. It also makes your story seem larger than it actually is.

Even if your horror-writing sensibilities are fairly splatterpunk – you don’t have the time and the space to fill your ultra-short horror story with lots of elaborate grisly descriptions. So, choose the most shocking or most unsettling parts of what you want to describe and leave out the rest. Remember, your audience’s imaginations will fill in all of the other gory details.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

“Moore’s Law” By C. A. Brown (A Cyberpunk Christmas – Short Story #12)

Yes, it's a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories :) Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Yes, it’s a series of daily festive cyberpunk stories 🙂 Stay tuned for the next one tomorrow at 9:30pm GMT.

Activate internal systems…. Activated.

Check system… Functional ( Error 1F – time until next maintenance: -12d9h. Service needed.)

Time exception. Unexpected activation. Calculating pathway… proceed with standard patrol routine.

Release docking clamps… (Error 1Q- clamps obstructed. Organic matter.)

Issue verbal challenge… (Error 7B – No response)

Issue second verbal challenge… (Error 7B – No response)

Activate light weapons systems… Obstruction cleared. Clamps released.

Activate propulsion drive… Activated. ( Error 1C – Battery below 30%.)

Dock with charging station…. Completed.

Resume patrol routine.

Begin general search pattern. Net data not available (Error 2T – insufficient bandwidth).

Activate pattern recognition systems. Offline human activity 99.4% below previous reading. Consistent with late December average.

Send communication ping…. (Error 6Y – no other active enforcement drones)

Widen search grid. Activate laser scan… New map 2% complete.

Pattern notification – criminal activity in progress.

Lower propulsion drive. Descend 74%. Issue verbal challenge.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Hull damage detected. Calculating pathway… Tactical routine 3

Ascend 65%. Activate light weapons…. (Error 8D – organic matter in light weapon mechanism)

Activate heavy weapons…. Activated. Criminal activity no longer detected.

Resume laser scan…. (Error 6K – map sector data over 40% different to previous scan)

Restart laser scan… New map 1% complete.

Pattern notification – lone human, offline. No criminal activity detected.

Calculating pathway… Seasonal reassurance routine 5

Descend 85%. Play ‘God_Rest_Ye_Merry_Gentlemen.mid’. Volume 75db.

Issue reassuring verbal statement…. Statement issued.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Continue current activity.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Continue current activity.

Error 7R – verbal response not in database.

Light hull damage detected…. Thrown object, low velocity.

Calculating pathway… Previous recorded responses: 100% hostile. Probability of military incursion… 75%. .

Ascend 200 % Activate EMP shielding. Deploy low-level atomic device…. Deploying.

Error 6L – map sector data 100% different to previous scan

Restart laser scan… New map 1% complete.

No criminal activity detected. Idle mode routine 4. Play ‘Silent_night.mid’. Volume 135db.

Issue reassuring statement… statement issued.

What Can “All Along The Watchtower” Teach Us About Minimalist Storytelling?

2015 Artwork All Along The Watchtower article sketch modified

Even though this is an article about minimalist storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about music, TV shows and about the strange ways that my mind works sometimes. There will be a point to this and I’m not just rambling about music and about myself for the sake of it.

A day or so before I wrote this article, I found myself obssessed with listening to a particular song. This is nothing new or spectacular – if I find a song I like, I’ll usually end up listening to it repeatedly until it’s either almost permanently etched into my memory or until it loses all fascination for me.

This time, the song was “All Along The Watchtower“. Surprisingly, the first time that I heard this song was last year when I finally got round to watching the last episode of season three of “Battlestar Galactica“.

Although I’d watched the rest of the season in 2013, I couldn’t afford either of the fourth season DVD boxsets at the time – so, like I often do, I didn’t watch the last episode of the last season I had, since I knew that it would end on a cliffhanger.

Anyway, season three of “Battlestar Galactica” has one of the most stunningky powerful and shocking endings that I’ve ever seen in a TV show. I don’t want to spoil too much, so I won’t go into the detail about it.

But, as you may have guessed, a cover version of “All Along The Watchtower” plays during that particular scene. I was naturally interested in the song for a while, but I only really rediscovered it earlier this year.

It’s one of those songs where almost every version of it is both unique and brilliant. Jimi Hendrix’s version is absolutely sublime and, even though it was recorded in the 1960s, it sounds timelessly modern. Bob Dylan’s original is oddly haunting and yet brilliantly fascinating, since it evokes long dark nights and painted mental images of torchlit medieval buildings [Edit: I’ve just changed the Youtube link for the Bob Dylan version of this song to the latest official video, since the official one when I originally wrote this article is now unlisted for some reason].

The cover by Bear McCreary from “Battlestar Galactica” also obviously reminds me of one of the most emotionally meaningful scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

So, why am I talking about “All Along The Watchtower”?

Well, it’s because the lyrics of the song are a brilliant example of minimalist poetic storytelling.

The song tells a strange story about boredom, nihilism and anticipation. It tells a story about a night which could either be just another meaningless night or it could be the eve of an apocalypse, or even the eve of better times. It contains interesting characters and fascinating locations…. And it does it all in less than two hundred words.

So, how do you tell stories like this?

Well, for starters, you should only include a couple of characters at the most. These characters need to be universal enough to be instantly recognisable, but also unique enough to be memorable.

For example, the two characters in “All Along The Watchtower” are a joker and a thief. Everyone has their own idea of what a joker and a thief look like (eg: a medieval jester and a mysterious handsome man who wears a cloak), they’re fairly generic stock characters. As such, Bob Dylan doesn’t need to describe what these characters look like or even to describe their backstory.

From their names alone, the audience can work out who they are and the lives that they have lived. As such, Bob Dylan has more room to actually tell the story.

However, if you listen to the lyrics of the song, it begins with the joker talking seriously to the thief about how depressing he finds life to be. Not only does the joker not even joke once, but he has the kind of nihilistic attitude that you’d probably expect the thief to have. The thief, on the other hand, is friendly, reassuring and optimistic. This is about the best example of dramatic irony that you’re going to find anywhere.

So, if the characters in your minimalist poem or story have to be stock characters, you also need to make sure that these characters are different enough to be interesting or memorable. You can do this through showing their personalities, or through brief descriptions – but there must be something interesting or unusual about your characters.

Likewise, the majority of Bob Dylan’s song is taken up by dialogue. This is one of the best ways to tell an interesting story in a short space, since you can include both characterisation and descriptions in dialogue. Likewise, overhearing a fragment of a conversation is inherently interesting, because it forces the listener to try to work out what the rest of the conversation will be like. So, dialogue can be a brilliant way to tell a fascinating story using a small number of words.

In addition to this, although most of “All Along The Watchtower” is taken up by dialogue between the joker and the thief, Bob Dylan also manages to create a really atmospheric setting through a just few brief descriptions. Interestingly, Bob Dylan never actually describes the watchtower itself – instead, he describes some of the things that are happening in the location (eg: a cat growling, servants walking through rooms, riders approaching etc…).

By describing actions, rather than the location itself – not only does Bob Dylan keep the story moving at a fast pace but he also forces the audience to use their imaginations to work out what the watchtower itself looks like. After all, if you describe an action, then your audience is going to have to imagine it. But, they’re not just going to imagine it in isolation – they’re also going to have to imagine where it happens too.

So, if you describe actions instead of locations – then your audience will automatically have to think about where those actions happened. As such, you don’t actually have to describe the setting itself.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Five Basic Tips For Writing Flash Fiction

2013 Artwork Flash fiction sketch

When I was about seventeen, I loved writing flash fiction. However, back then, I hadn’t even heard the term “flash fiction” before and I used to refer to my flash fiction stories as “fragments”. Even though everything I wrote when I was seventeen was embarrassingly badly-written, I still really like flash fiction even though I don’t really write it that often these days.

In case you’ve never heard of it before, “flash fiction” refers to very short stories which are typically less than a thousand words long. This can be quite a fun genre to write in, especially since flash fiction stories can be written relatively quickly and, when they’re well-written, they can have an almost poetic quality to them.

However, writing flash fiction is very slightly different to writing “ordinary” short fiction. There aren’t a huge number of differences, but there are a few:

1) One setting: Generally speaking, flash fiction stories should only really take place in one location. This is mainly because you probably won’t have the space to introduce and describe two different settings properly in such a small amount of words.

In many ways, it’s probably best to think of flash fiction as being a written version of a single scene from a film. In most films, each scene takes place in a single location because it makes sense in both practical and dramatic terms.

There are obviously exceptions to this and there’s no cast-iron rule against having more than one setting in a flash fiction story, but it’s generally a good idea to have all of the events of the story take place in one location.

2) Structure: Since flash fiction stories are meant to be very short stories which only present a short moment in time or a single event, these stories don’t always need a traditional “beginning, middle and end” structure.

Yes, if a traditional structure works well with your flash fiction story, then use it. But, you don’t have to use these for flash fiction stories. When you are working with these kinds of story lengths, the content of your story matters a lot more than the structure.

3) Characters: For obvious reasons, flash fiction stories should have fewer characters than “ordinary” short stories. In other words, you’ll probably only have room for three characters at the most (including the narrator, if your story is written from a first-person perspective).

Unless you’re writing a character study, you won’t really have the space to develop your characters fully in a flash fiction story – so, you will have to give your readers a general impression of your characters in a fairly economical way. If you’re writing from a first-person perspective, this can include presenting the narrator’s personality through their narrative voice and their brief descriptions of other characters. If you’re writing from a third-person perspective, you can’t really do this, so you might want to just include two characters.

It’s also a good idea to keep your descriptions of your characters fairly brief and let your readers’ imaginations fill in the rest of the details. Because of the length, your readers probably aren’t expecting detailed descriptions of everyone in the story.

Dialogue is another thing you can use to include characterisation in your flash fiction story without wasting too many words or slowing your story down. In fact, some flash fiction stories can consist of pretty much nothing but dialogue.

4) One Event: Generally speaking, flash fiction stories don’t usually have room for sub-plots. There isn’t really room for them. You could possibly hint at a sub-plot (eg: if your characters seem like they might be in love with each other or if they used to be in love with each other) but your story should only really revolve around one main event, conversation or short sequence of events.

Another reason for avoiding sub-plots in flash fiction stories is because they can distract your readers from the main plot of your story and it also means that you’ll have less space to present and develop your main plot too.

5) It isn’t a technical challenge: Despite everything I’ve said in this article, writing flash fiction shouldn’t feel like it’s some kind of intellectual exercise or technical challenge. If your story idea is too big for a flash fiction story, then just turn it into an “ordinary” short story rather than cutting it down to a shorter length. The best flash fiction stories, like the best poems, usually kind of evolve spontaneously almost of their own accord.

Likewise, the “thousand words or less” thing is more of a general guideline than a cast-iron rule (unless you’re submitting anything to a writing contest – if you’re doing this then you should always stick to the word limits). In other words, if your story is 1010 words, then it still might be a flash fiction story. But if it’s 1500 words, then it’s probably a short story.

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Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂