Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Misadventures in Non-fiction

In this second of two posts on the BristolFlash NFFD workshop, I want to look at Pauline Masurel's section of the workshop. In common with Calum's workshop exercises, this was all about taking the familiar and conventional and breaking convention with it to tell a story. Mazzy described the exercise as "misadventures in non-fiction", taking a recognisable, everyday non-fiction format and putting it to work as a vehicle for fiction. In this case, newspaper headlines and stories.

News stories are written in inverted pyramid style, where instead of building up to a conclusion or climax as a piece progresses, the base of the story's pyramid is flipped so that the essence of the whole story is revealed at the start — in the headline itself, then told again in the first sentence with more detail, then again over the next couple of paragraphs in greater detail, and so on. This allows readers to go as deep or as shallow as they wish, controlling the detail they read according to their interest, while still getting at least the essence of the story. It is a technique I have discussed and used in technical writing, such as the writing of patterns and of use cases.

Fictional stories are normally told by ascending a regular pyramid; inverting it by giving away the ending at the start is not obviously the right way to tell a tale. Not obviously. But this is flash fiction and the form is there to be played with as a creative constraint, not something to be followed blindly so as to beat the joy and creativity out of writing.

Our exercise was anchored in the headline. What makes a good headline? It should contain the whole story and grab your attention. Mazzy cited the classic example that Dog Bites Man was not a particularly interesting headline, but Man Bites Dog was... and Bristol Man Bites Dog was even better, offering a sense of place, something specific the reader can latch on to that perhaps confounds expectation — hence, for a local paper, Clifton Man Bites Dog would be an even better headline.

So to get the ball rolling, we needed a who, a what and a where, for which Mazzy passed round some postcards to act as inspiration. Here's the lot I drew:

And here's the resulting headline and opening:
Scilly Housewife Skates to Cornwall 
Land's End? Not any more! Freak subzero temperatures have frozen the Celtic Sea. Yesterday, mother of five, Mazzy Gardner of the Scilly Isles, donned boots and blades and skated all the way to Bude.
We then discussed a number of other possible forms that could be co-opted, sometimes with known examples: email chains, cc'd and copied (the interesting challenge here is that the story appears backwards, with the most recent item first); obituaries; public service announcements; product recall announcements; tweets (a story of mine uses tweets mixed in with texts); recipes (a couple of recipe tales were read by Clare Crestani at Small Stories last month); instructions; contraindications for medicine; medical dictionary definitions; academic footnotes; scientific abstracts; exam questions (such as this future bioethics paper by Claire King); marginalia; Q&A missing the questions; search history (such as the 2012 Flashbang winner by Iain Rowan); screenplay directions; fortune cookies; horoscopes; Amazon reviews; film reviews; seed packet directions; ingredients; weather forecasts; questionnaires; disclaimers; EULAs; album cover notes; notes on zoo cages. And others. Once you've started thinking about the possibilities, it's quite difficult to stop!

1 comment:

David Harvey said...

The most impressive footnotes novel has to be Nabakov, Pale Fire. Interesting to recall, too, that for a long time the standard form of the novel was epistlatory...