Writing Without Rules

photo by Claudia Meyer

by Frank Burton

I try to write in as many forms as possible, but I consider myself to be a short story writer primarily.  So why do I do it?  This is a question I consider a lot.

I think it’s because I find the process of creating a short story is a much freer experience than writing in other forms.  Novels, even wildly experimental ones, need to have some form of structure and follow certain conventions when it comes to character and plot.  But with short stories, I would argue, there are no rules.  The only two criteria you need are for the piece to be short, and for it to be a story.  And that’s pretty straightforward.

One piece of flash fiction from my collection, A History of Sarcasm (Dog Horn 2009) is short enough to be reproduced in its entirety here:

The Day She Melted

The day she melted, she was shouting about how she’s told me a thousand times, and I was shouting back telling her not to shout, when I noticed the dribbles of liquid flesh pouring down her face.  She was in such a rage that she barely even noticed, and it wasn’t long before she became just a puddle at my feet, leaving me no choice but to weep giant Alice tears until I melted too, mixing with her into one sweet swirling mass. We ran down the stairs, out the front door and down the street, waving at passers by as we rushed towards the bottom of the hill with no idea where we were going from here, but at least we were free.

You could say it’s a story about freedom, and writing it was a liberating experience.  I wasn’t writing with any particular publication in mind, so the word-count wasn’t an issue.  I like the fact that you don’t need to know anything about the characters other than what happens to them.  There was no need to create a back story.  Likewise, I didn’t need to worry about what was going to happen to them next.  The characters don’t know what’s going to happen either.  I realised recently that this is how most of my stories end – with a character walking off into the sunset (or ‘running’ in the above case) with no idea where they’re going next.

I’m sure there are plenty of notable exceptions, but generally speaking, if you’re writing a longer piece of fiction – a novel, a play, or whatever – actions have to lead to consequences, and everything needs to make some kind of sense.  (Even a seemingly anarchic tale like Alice in Wonderland has a peculiar logic to it.)    With short stories, especially the shorter forms, you don’t necessarily need that.  Events can happen just for the hell of it, and no further explanation or analysis is needed.  You could compare them to dreams in that sense.  I’ve based a few short stories on dreams, but it would be difficult to base an entire novel on a dream (unless you have a particularly good memory).

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing short stories with a formal structure, with proper characters, and a clearly defined beginning, middle and end (as our schoolteachers informed us was the correct way of doing things).  But my point is, you can make your own rules.  You can choose to follow what you learnt in the classroom, or you can throw the rulebook out of the window.

For me, that’s the beauty of creating short stories, and that’s why I’m going to carry on doing it.

I’m currently working on a new short story collection, which I’m hoping to have finished at some point this year.  Readers of this blog may also be interested in my ebook, The Prodigals, which began life as a series of short stories, but developed into a novel at a later stage.  The full text can be read online or downloaded for free from www.prodigalsnovel.com.

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One thought on “Writing Without Rules

  1. Having read (and reviewed) Frank’s collection I can vouch for his ability to ignore the rules. Or perhaps I mean that I can testify for his enthusiasm to write his own rules. I particularly remember his characteristic list structured stories. In fact, I’m surprised that writers don’t make more use of the ability to invent their own short story genres. Shopping lists,voicemail messages, lonely hearts and any number of other modern prose formats are ripe for subverting. Or to simply let structure melt for once and be free from form…..although at what point does a story which follows none of the rules of beginning-middling-and-ending become a poem? I’ve never known the answer to that.

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