“Yes Impro, do you have something to contribute to this discussion on storytelling in flash fiction?”
“Extend and advance, Miss!”
When I was an improviser, I was enchanted by Keith Johnstone’s concept of extending and advancing. Extending means staying with “what you’ve got” – elaborating, exploring, going deeper, resisting the pressure to move forward. Advancing means deliberately yielding to the narrative pressure and taking a step.
Inexperienced improvisers tend to rush the story – advance, advance, advance – without investing the time to evoke setting, build character, or enlist the audience’s emotions. Timed impro games (especially 1 and 2 minute games) often encourage this breathless rushing that leaves nobody feeling satisfied.
I think that, for writers, there’s a risk that flash fiction can encourage the same strategy – trying to pack in as much “action” as quickly as possible. However, the best flash fiction I’ve read – like some of the best improvisation I’ve seen – creates a sense of deep engagement, of taking its time, of bringing the reader/audience along.
My favourite improvisation exercise for developing extending/advancing skills is played in pairs.
Person A starts an activity (eg. “going fishing”), and Person B asks “What are you doing?”
A must check, and report what she’s doing right at this moment – “walking”, “breathing”, “sliding the worm onto the hook”, “swinging my rod backwards”.
Then B says “Extend … (that action)”. A lets go of whatever she’s vaguely intending to do in the future (eg. hook such a big fish she gets hauled into the water), and focuses on extending the identified moment of walking, breathing, sliding the worm, or swinging the rod.
All kinds of possibilities can develop out of any of these actions. From “breathing”, for example, A might find herself suddenly struggling for breath, or smell something foul or beautiful and start sniffing the air. A bug might fly up her nose, she might find herself filling up like a balloon, etc. etc.
B observes carefully, and encourages A to extend on her immediate action – “Extend trying to snort the bug out of your nose”. The story gradually develops – it does move forward – but with much more tension, physicality, emotion, and interest, than if A had simply ploughed ahead with the ideas she had in mind. It’s a little like a collected canter in dressage, where the horse is moving forward but in an “intensified” kind of way, because momentum is working against restraint.
After a while, if A starts feeling uncreative in her extending and the story hasn’t reached a satisfying conclusion, B might say “Advance”. This gives A permission to let something new happen. The sense of release from the intensity of extending usually results in quite a big leap or twist. For example, since A has blown up like a balloon and is floating helplessly, the enormous fish might mistake her for a fly and leap up out of the water. This advancement is immediately reined in by the instruction to “Extend” (eg. “What are you doing?” “Being eaten by the fish!” “Extend being eaten”). And again we get a rich, satisfying, entertaining chunk of story.
I’ve noticed most if not all of my favourite flash pieces work the same way as the game Extend and Advance. The storyteller starts us off somewhere, and extends on what’s happening, tiny detail by tiny detail, developing the picture. Then there’ll be a leap, twist or turning point that’s quite dramatic, if subtle. Some stories are two-act (one turning point, maybe half or 2/3 of the way through), some are three-act (one turning point at the 1/3 mark, another around the 2/3 mark or later). After the turning point (advance), the dominant mode might return to extension, but the story usually seems to move more quickly because the details are now invested with new meaning.
1. Look at several pieces of flash fiction by different authors (I’ve been looking at pieces up to 300 words, but the uses of extending and advancing are usually very clear up to about 1000 words).
Using a couple of different colour highlighting pens, mark each sentence according to whether it’s “extending” or “advancing”.
Notice where the points of advancement occur. Do they delineate “acts” in the story? What impact does each advancement have on what comes after? Does the author then go back to extending, or leap from advance to advance? Are there different degrees of advancement – big leaps versus small but significant ones? How does the author manage extending without becoming boring? How does she manage advancing without leaving the reader behind?
For this exercise it’s great if you can get some pieces you feel “work”, and some you feel “don’t quite work”, and analyse the weaker stories by comparing them with the stronger.
2. Write a piece of flash fiction. Give yourself a time limit (5 minutes). Start with a title, topic or idea (use a prompt from a writing site if you need one). Write the first sentence. Then “Extend” on the first sentence/idea. Extend and extend as long as you can, resisting the pressure to advance the story until you a. reach a satisfying conclusion, b. run out of time, c. start feeling uncreative, or d. have such a good idea for an advancement you can’t resist.
If a., read over the first draft and decide what else the story needs. Did an advancement creep in without you even noticing? Did you extend all the way to the end, but nothing much happened? Is it a good story but a bit “samey” in terms of pace, tone, etc.? Use the concepts of advancing and extending to rewrite.
If b., pretty much the same as for a. Did you reach a conclusion? What does the story need? Go back and rewrite, using the concepts of advancing and extending.
If c. or d., allow yourself to Advance. Now you’ll have to decide whether (and what) to extend. Maybe the path to the end of your story is now in a series of advancements, like stepping stones. When you run out of time, start your rewriting process, paying particular attention to the concepts of advancing and extending.
When you’ve rewritten your piece to your satisfaction, go through the finished story with your highlighters and identify the sentences that extend and those that advance. Ask yourself the questions from 1.
I know this is a very analytical exercise, but it should be quite an informative one 🙂