Five Steps for Editing Mystery Flash Fiction Stories
Writing, Editing, Piecing... Building a Story That Will Endure
I’m from Michigan where anyone who lives south of the Mackinac Bridge is known as a Troll. Across the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, are Yoopers, the happy folks of the Upper Peninsula who live simple lives in the midst of natural wonders. We enjoy picking on each other and jokes are created, like this one.
Two Yoopers were building a sauna in the back yard. Urho, they always seem to have Finnish names, was scratching his head, looking down at a board he had just cut. “What’s the matter,” said toyvo. “You know,” said Urho, “I cut that board twice and it’s still too short.”
Cutting boards for a sauna and words from a story are forms of editing. I also think of how we manipulate photos with software programs to delete pixels and sharpen the edges of the images. This is just another form of editing. The Cambridge English Dictionary says that edit means “to make changes to a text or film, deciding what will be removed and what will be kept.”
My Sons, Scott and Dan, "Editing" Boards and Fitting Them Into Our Sauna
Writing and Editing My Story for the 2016 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge
I was recently part of a flash fiction competition and was given the genre, mystery, along with some other prompts. Like most of us, I’ve read a lot of mysteries, so I thought I would be fine writing a one thousand word story. In the process, I discovered the unique complexities of the mystery genre and their incongruence with flash fiction.
Every story, no matter which genre, has these five elements: Characters, Setting, Plot, Problem, Solution. The place where mystery and flash fiction butt heads is when it comes to characters. Most genres require only a couple characters, or even just one. Mystery requires the point of view character, victim(s), the antagonist and at least one red herring character.
But I had to complicate things just a little more. Before I even knew what genre I would be writing in, I had decided I wanted to do a mixed genre story. That is fine in flash fiction….for every genre other than mystery. But I plowed ahead and wrote my mystery/romance. The result was a first draft of sixteen hundred words for a story with a limit of one thousand words. More than one third of my story had to go.
I began the overwhelming task of cutting six hundred words from a story that was already bare bones in terms of excess verbiage. I found myself forced to cut characterization, plot, necessary items that left me with an osteoporotic skeleton of a story that had no chance of standing on its own, let alone standing up against twenty-one hundred other stories in the competition .
Editing a piece of flash fiction is the same as editing any other length story. We get rid of unnecessary elements such as adverbs, side stories and back story. But at some point, because flash fiction is so short, we run out of the obvious things to cut and begin attacking the heart of the story.
Here are five ways to shorten a draft to meet the one thousand word maximum which is often placed on flash fiction.
Story Before Editing-1536 Words
Editing Step One: Write the First Draft to Avoid the Need for Editing
Surgery always leaves a scar.
For flash fiction, the best practice may be to produce in the first draft only the material that is essential to the story. If you know that what you are writing will need to be cut, then don’t write it in the first place. Surgery always leaves a scar.
For me, this included descriptions of the setting, such as daytime giving way to evening and a lengthy description of the location of the story. I knew while I was writing that I would not be able to keep all these parts.
But as a writer, I know how valuable these descriptions can be for me as I build my story. They help me see the story in my own mind. It might be helpful to write these parts, the ones you know will be cut, in a different color. That way you can go back and cut them quickly when you are finished writing.
Editing Step Two: Avoid/Cut Openings with Extraneous Details
Cut Your Entire Opening and Start Over
Begin the story later in the action by cutting the entire opening. My story began with my main character standing in the boarding queue of a ferry. The rest of the story took place on the ferry. My MC boarded the craft, met the other characters and the story unfolded.
I could have begun with him already on board, having his club soda in the lounge. This would have cut a couple of hundred words. I didn’t do that because in the competition, there wasn’t only a limit on words, there was also a forty-eight hour time limit. I simply ran out of time to make further changes.
Editing Step Three: Begin the Story With the Mystery
All you have to do is prove that the guy standing over there named Professor Plum, killed the person lying at his feet with the candelabra he is holding in his bloody hands.
This is an extension of number two. Begin the story with the murderer, victim and weapon all together in the place of the murder. I’m being facetious, so don’t follow this part too closely. But if you did, then all you’d have to do in one thousand words is prove that the guy standing over there named Professor Plum, killed the person lying at his feet with the candelabra he is holding in his bloody hands.
When you are dealing with mystery flash fiction, you don’t have the word count for anything other than the bare bones of the story. Begin your story closer to the mystery and its solution.
Editing Step Four: Eliminate Nonessential Scenes
Transplant vital parts elsewhere
Leave out entire scenes. This is tough when the story is only one thousand words and every scene contributes something important. The trick is to drop the scene and work the vital part in somewhere else. In my story, a scene involving the security people on the ferry had to be dropped entirely. Only a mention of the security team was left.
Editing Step Five: Eliminate Nonessential Characters
If the bartender does nothing but pour drinks, cut him from the story.
Cut characters entirely from the story or eliminate unnecessary characterization. I cut the head of security completely as well as the bartender. Of my four characters, only two had significant characterization. My red herring character simply didn’t work due to the editing. The person who was to carry out the crime, only came into the story toward the end other than a couple of earlier mentions and barely noticeable appearances.
Editing Step Six: Move Up to the Next Writing Category/Format
Admit that you have too much story for the flash fiction format.
Story After Editing-Exactly 1000 Words
Regarding the story I had written for the competition, I had to admit that I had too much story for the flash fiction format and needed to turn it into a longer short story. The secret is not to be a slave to the format we write in. As much as I love flash fiction, if the story doesn’t fit, I have to move on to the next category. In my case, this meant short story. It might mean you change from novella to novel.
If you undertake the challenge to write a flash fiction mystery, know from the outset that you need to pay extra attention to word count. Edit if you are over the word count utilizing the five guidelines above. But be careful when you cut. You wouldn’t want to get to the last scene, when Nero Wolfe, or your version of him, is giving the blow by blow account of how the crime occurred, only to discover you edited out the guilty person. Edit with care.