The Challenge Beyond Craft: Slot-Filling (Part 1 of 2)

A few weeks ago, in “Give Readers Something To Love,” I discussed the realities of your flash fiction submission being one of hundreds under consideration—and how that reality might make you think differently about how your flash fiction needs to grab readers’ attentions. I also mentioned that craft might not be the answer to this challenge.

I’d like to explore that idea a bit more. For example, a well-known craft “rule” is for dialogue attribution to be 99.9% invisible, with said being used almost exclusively. Un-initiated writers might use exclaim, chortle, and even (oh my!) ejaculate, but it takes all of ten seconds to tell them, “Just use said. That’s the rule these days.” Problem solved.

You might explain to them that, like any rule, this rule has an agenda—possibly to make sure authors stay invisible. You might wonder if readers even care that much about attribution. Does anyone notice Fitzgerald’s dialogue attribution in The Great Gatsby? Here are a few examples, all in a row, pages 38-42:

cried Catherine triumphantly / continued Catherine / she exclaimed surprisingly / she declared vigorously / said Myrtle Wilson / said Myrtle ambiguously / Myrtle considered / she said finally / said Catherine / cried Myrtle incredulously / I said / resumed Catherine / she cried / shouted Mrs. Wilson / he suggested / snapped the elevator boy / I agreed

But, hey, most editors will notice it, even if most readers—especially those “un-schooled” in the idiosyncratic whims of the literary gatekeepers—likely see all attribution as invisible. In most cases, though, the rule is presented without much fanfare: “Use said. Don’t you dare exclaim!”

Other craft “rules” associated with dialogue can easily be taught. Use a different paragraph for a different speaker. And then there are the different ways to attribute dialogue. Imagine Ralph and Mary are talking.

“I love you. So much,” Mary said.

Mary said, “I love you. So much.”

“I love you,” Mary said. “So much.”

“I love you, Ralph. So much.” (The use of Ralph makes it clear that Mary is the one speaking).

“I love you.” Mary continued rolling the pasta dough. “So much.”

 

Imagine each of these as fill-in-the-blanks:

 

 “[ ],” Mary said.

Mary said .“[ ].”

“[ ],” Mary said. “[ ].”

“[ ], Ralph.”

“[ ].” [ ]. “[ ].”

 

Imagine every writer is given these same slots to fill. I often do this assignment for my workshops. I ask students to fill such slots with the content for a story, and I realize that slot-filling is its own kind of writing talent, its own kind of creativity. Craft might, for some, close off options, but this kind of slot-filling exercise opens up the possibilities to a possibly overwhelming number of choices. For some writers—sometimes especially those who excelled at craft—slot-filling can reveal a need to strengthen one’s imagination and freshness.

Imagine how many times writers—all working within those same parameters of both the written and unwritten rules of craft—have to make such a choice. What should go into that slot? Over and over, again and again. What should go into that slot? How many times have my own stories failed, you ask, because I didn’t get it right? Hundreds and hundreds of times.

That I think is the undervalued skill of writing flash. Slot-filling. As in above example, What should Mary say to Ralph? And what else should be included—as in Mary continued rolling the pasta dough? Should it be an action, a description, a thought, a memory? And which one? Should it be a song on the radio, a voice on the television, racket from outside? And so on and so on…

In a recent flash, for example, I had wanted a couple to be cleaning up their yard after Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane itself—this force beyond their control—seemed to have so many metaphoric possibilities related to  their life together. But a metaphor for what? And what should they be doing while they conversed? I began with him chain-sawing a fallen tree, her dragging limbs to a pile. Nothing much came to me. Then I changed things up—and gave her the chainsaw. That image engaged my imagination more. But where did that image come from? How did I decide to fill a slot with a chainsaw wielding Mary?—and a limb-dragging Ralph?

Maybe it came from the world of critical cultural studies—the study of the privileged positions within language, race, identity, culture, sexual orientation, gender, and the like. Or did it come from a remnant of my reading, of my favorite character Antigone? Maybe from some expression of my own experience, raced by a single mom, surrounded by a yard always, it seemed, in need of our attention.

Maybe that is all part of craft. I don’t know. I just know that slot after slot calls for my attention, and maybe that’s why, of all the calls, I hear most clearly that of flash fiction—its slots pre-defined and limited.

Slot-filling—no matter the category it falls under—still feels to me separate from the world of craft. For craft, I feel I can go to a book and find the “right” way to use dialogue. But where do I find the answers about what goes inside those correctly placed quotes, that brilliantly summarized conversation? What, for example, should the chain-saw wielding “Mary” say? [Stay tuned for next week’s installment.]

Randall Brown

About Randall Brown

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and teaches at the MFA in Creative Program at Rosemont College.




  • Sheldon Lee Compton

    I liked the article, man. I especially like the section where you discuss the decision to give Mary the chainsaw and also the decision itself. And I think you’re so right. Filling in those slots seem to be something outside of craft and more closely linked to instinct or something similar. I’ll for sure be reading part two of this.

  • Randall Brown

    Thanks, Sheldon for liking the article. Yes, instinct or something like it. I agree.