Here are three things, in no particular order, which you can’t do* in short fiction.
- Narrative in third-person present tense.
- Flashbacks when the narrative is in third-person present tense.
* By “things you can’t do” I really mean “things which are impossibly difficult to do well.”
Let’s talk about this.
Flashbacks. Despite some editors’ firm bias against them, flashbacks are not inherently bad. It’s just that in short fiction, where you need to get to telling one story and telling it well, the economy of words does not generally leave room to effectively develop both a main timeline and a flashback timeline. Plus, to let the reader know that you’re switching between the timelines, you generally need to change verb tense or start a new section—or even a new chapter. Flashbacks, if used at all, work better in novel-length work than in short fiction.
Third-Person Present. This is one step more difficult to do well than first-person present tense. In both cases, unlike past-tense narratives, in present tense descriptions of “this is happening, now this is happening, and now this is happening,” it’s impossible for the speaker to know anything before the reader knows it. This means the author not only has to keep straight the characters’ point-of-view, but also the narrator’s. That’s extremely difficult to do.
Both at the same time. Imagine for a moment that an author has attempted not one, but both of these impossible feats in a short story. In this imaginary story, not only do we (author and reader) have to keep track of multiple timelines, but also keep POV consistent and correct for the timeline we’re in. And then, just to up the ante of impossibility, imagine that the author hasn’t even given us the standard clues of changing verb tense for the flashback scenes and perhaps setting them apart with asterisks—* * *—or some similar section divider.
Like me, you’re shaking your head already. Obviously, you can’t do that in short fiction.
And yet, in “Her Fruitful Shore,” Brian Reeves does exactly that. Not only does it, but does it brilliantly—and that’s why I selected it for Spark, Volume I.
The story follows Delroy Lawrence as he’s hired to take a small group of American tourists out to a secluded Jamaican beach in his wooden boat. I encourage you to read once for the amazing storytelling, then once again for literary analysis: watch carefully for the one time Reeves tells us he’s switching timelines—and how he deftly accomplishes it without changing tense at all. I’m not going to tell you where it is, but I’ll warn you that it’s so well done it’s easy to miss.
From that point forward, we readers are never warned that the story is switching between “now” and “flashback,” but we’re also never confused. Reeves gives just enough context at each switching point to allow the reader to seamlessly follow along, completely immersed in Delroy’s life. As a result, “Her Fruitful Shore” remains one of my favorite stories—and a go-to example of well-crafted writing.
I guess you can do that in short fiction.
— Brian Lewis