Lesson No. 2: Schematics Like Prose, Schematics Like Poetry with Rae Bryant


How can short short prose be like poetry? As we explored in last week’s lesson on “A Little Fable” and Freytag’s Pyramid, a short short story (flash fiction) can be as rich in narrative arc as a novel, if and only if, we give our readers enough information and guidance to help them form the fuller story for themselves. In “A Little Fable,” we did not need to see the specifics of the maze, the color of the walls, the detailing of the mouse’s fur or the cat’s fur in order to understand the full narrative arc. We understood that the setting was a maze. Perhaps you saw white walls or gray walls or perhaps your maze was dark. Did your mouse search for a piece of swiss or cheddar? Was your cat a tabby? Perhaps it looked like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, with its wide grin. Whatever your specific details, you were able to form them within the schematic details of Kafka’s narrative arc:

  • Setting: Maze
  • Characters: Mouse and cat
  • Conflict: Mouse v. Maze, Mouse v. Cat, Mouse v. Trap, Mouse v. Self (arguably the most important conflict)
  • Rising Action: Search for escape, Search for cheese (did you imagine cheese in the trap, too?)
  • Climax: Mouse facing cat
  • Falling Action: Cat instructing mouse
  • Resolution: Cat eating mouse
  • Denouement: What was your individual denouement? Perhaps it had something to do with Mouse v. Self? Perhaps it asked the important question: How do we navigate the challenges and dangers of our lives when caught in such all encompassing mazes? Or you experienced a fate v. free will resonance?

Learning to create these sparse schematic narrative arcs in which a reader can imagine individual details  

Read the following prose by Diane Williams and the poem, “Leaving the Empty Room” by Stephen Dunn. Then read the poem again. Read it many times. One of the core strategies to reading and exploring short short fiction, prose poetry and poetry is multiple readings. These “brevity forms” are short, concise, full of subtexts and metaphors. They are meant to be read again and again and in different settings. Read them in your kitchen. Read them in the bathroom. Read them at night before sleeping. Read them in a museum, a crowded cafe, at work on your lunch break…. Short short forms allow us the ability to employ critical reading skills in an easy to achieve repetitive succession.

As you are reading the following work, consider how each work presents the same narrative and schematic details as Kafka’s “A Little Fable.” Consider how they differ. 


Now watch the following film and performance of Dunn’s poem. Consider how this rendering might be different than what you imagined as you first read the poem. How does the film rendering inform or change your views of the poem? (Do not watch the following video until you’ve read the poem a few times and considered the details of the poem for yourself first.) After you watch the Dunn video, consider how Williams’ work might be rendered visually, too. 


  • Craft Technique: When reading a new work that inspires you to create your own, you might consider creating a visual representation of the original work, either photo collage or short film, if you prefer film. Through this multiple modality exercise, many writers find that the media inspires further creativities. Example: You might consider creating a character collage using googled celebrity photos, actors who you imagine might play the characters if the text were made into a film. You could also find YouTube clips of films that have a general mood, tone and setting you imagine for your narrative. (Here is a mashup of Robert De Niro moments. These sorts of A List actor mashups are great craft resources to keep in your pocket. As you’re fleshing your characters out and looking for mood and tone regarding facial attributes, affects, voices, you can bring your characters to more life by actually assigning actors to them and keeping a character sheet with photos, urls of videos, etc. You can also have fun with this. Consider a humorous piece in which the protagonist is described as having the face of De Niro and the voice of Katherine Hepburn or vice versa. When writing short short fiction, incorporating a few recognizable place names, such as actors, can be a great technique in describing character, though, one or two instances can often be enough.)




Writing Assignment 

This week, you will complete three assignments:

1. Choose one of the above works under the “Reading Assignment.” List the narrative arc elements for that work. Use the above example for Kafka’s “A Little Fable.” Identify the setting, rising action, complication, climax, reversal, falling action, resolution and denouement. Some of the details of this arc will be fleshed out and added by you as the reader, and that is okay. The short short forms are engaging your creativity and intellect to form narrative and story. This reader response to reading is what Nobel Prize Winner Eric Kandel calls the “reader’s share” in his arts and aesthetics book The Age of Insight: A Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain.

2. Now, restructure your chosen reading so to make it your own. Replace details. Add details, if it is under 1000 words. If you chose Dunn’s poem, turn the “lines” into paragraphs. Keep it under 1000 words. This rewrite of a master’s work is an excellent way to study and further explore your own voice. Don’t worry, by the end of this assignment, you will have made this work your own. (Of course, you would not want to keep the structure of the original work as this would be plagiarism; however, the systematic study of a master writer is one of the best ways toward gleaning out your best narrative voice and individual aesthetics.)

3. Finally, read your rewrite aloud a few times. Let your mind marinate in it. Then put the exercise aside. Do not look at it. Open a fresh document or take out a new piece of paper. Now, you are going to write the work, again, from memory. In this rewrite, you are not regurgitating the words and original, rather, you are letting the rewrite of the original to linger creatively in your mind, giving you foundation, as you create your own, original work. When you have completed your first draft, look for areas where you may still be regurgitating the original work. Replace any sections with your own details. Remember, we are studying and exploring master works as springboards for our own work. We do not want to copy or plagiarize. Do not worry as I will consider all of this as I read and give notes on your submitted manuscripts.

When you submit this story, I will be looking at surgical detail–i.e., precision of sensory, cyclical allusions within the full narrative arc, and more. As this can mean many different things for different voices and narrative arcs, I will identify more specifically what this means for your story, in your voice, directly on your manuscript.


Discussion | How Can Poetry Affect Your Short Short Prose?

Why would exploring poetry be helpful to you, in general, as a short short story writer? How did the poetic exploration of Dunn’s poem impact your prose? Do you have a favorite poet? Have you explored this poet’s work as inspirational for your short short fiction?


rae.headshotRae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared or will soon be appearing in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.

“Ma” Spaces in Short Short Fiction with Sommer Schafer

In this lesson we will be focusing on understanding and using ma spaces, which is the Japanese word for “in between,” in relation to very short fiction. In this workshop you will generate at least three new pieces of fiction that we will read and comment upon, read several stories under 1000 words, and engage in discussions about the art and craft of writing short short fiction. Our reading list will include Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Peter Orner, Shabnam Nadiya and others. I hope you will take this opportunity to truly explore and push the boundaries of your creative writing! My wish for you is that you come away with a better understanding of how to cultivate and nurture your unique voice in relation to what you see and write. As writer Alice LaPlante says, “Tell yourself the audacious thing that because you noticed it, it matters” (from The Making of a Story). And, now, without further delay….

“Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.” ~ Robert Olen Butler

What is Ma Space?

New York Movie

Take a good look at Edward Hopper’s painting, New York Movie. This painting, and indeed all of Hopper’s stark paintings, is a good example of the use of ma spaces. As noted above, ma is the Japanese word for “in between.” You could also think of it as “negative” space. In writing terms, it is what is left off the page; what is taking place off stage or out of the scene. One of the masters of this is short story writer Amy Hempel, several of whose stories we will be reading in this lesson. 

“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story.” ~ Amy Hempel

Going back to New York Movie. Think for a moment about how this painting uses ma spaces, and how these spaces create meaning, intrigue and movement (plot). I like how this painting shows us literally what is being left off the stage (the woman and the story around her). What “in between” spaces do you sense in this painting? What is being left off the painted surface yet is still an integral part of the painting’s story? What is the real story here? How does Hopper accomplish this?

In the Discussion and Comments area below, please comment in 500 words or less your thoughts on how ma spaces are used and shown in New York Movie, and how these spaces bring meaning, intrigue and movement to the story (or stories) the painting is telling. 

Why the Short Short Story?

Fiction under 1000 words is also known as “flash” fiction. There’s also “sudden” fiction (usually under 1500 words) and “micro” fiction (stories 100 words or shorter). Regardless, as Peter Orner once told me, it’s all still fiction! Short or long, a story is, well, simply that: it tells a story. As Robert Olen Butler says, “Fiction is the art form of human yearning, no matter how long or short that work of fiction is.”

However, there are a few signature traits of very short fiction, which we will see in stories we read for this course.

  1. Most short short stories begin in medias rex, i.e.; “in the middle of things.” In other words, there is no preamble. Short short fiction does not concern itself with providing a set-up. It also does not usually spend time on backstory or showing a character’s past life by way of explaining present actions or circumstances. In short short fiction, the reader is forced to deduce everything that is left in the ma spaces; what is left unsaid.
  2. Thus, writers of short short fiction must be adept at knowing what to focus on, and which words to use. In this respect, short short fiction is most similar to poetry, in which each word, each bit of dialogue, is carefully chosen and placed. Grace Paley famously said that very short stories “should be read like a poem, that is, slowly.”
  3. In short short fiction there is no time to explain. Really, practiced writers do no explaining at all, but especially in very short fiction, a writer must learn to let the reader’s hand go. Effective use of ma spaces is what allows the writer to fully engage the reader (not confuse). A writer of short short fiction must learn to use metaphor to intimate and suggest.
  4. As the editors of Flash Fiction International say, “Flash fiction has always been a form of experiment, of possibility.” If there’s one thing you take away from this course, it should be that the possibilities of what you notice are infinite and deserve stories. There is nothing too great, too small, too weird, too unspectacular for fiction. It is simply a matter of skillful focus.
  5. Finally, and maybe most importantly, short short fiction brings the focus to people, actions, moments that may normally go unnoticed. Very short fiction exonerates the blasé, the tiny, the fleeting, because it provides a space for what the writer notices, and by this shows that life is much more than the sum of its parts. As Charles Baxter notes, fiction is a matter of vision; “of where you think reality takes place.”

A Short History of Very Short Fiction

As the editors of Flash Fiction International note, very short fiction has been around for a very long time. From “ancient Mayan rituals” to “Sumerian clay tablets” to the Bible, “flash wasn’t born on the Internet.” Short short fiction started appearing in anthologies in the ‘80s, and has been gaining in popularity since. At the end of this course, I will provide a list of literary journals and magazines that actively seek short short fiction. I hope you will consider submitting your work.

And now on to the good stuff . . .

Reading Assignment

Discussion Assignment: Human Longing & Ma Spaces

Where are there examples of, as Robert Olen Butler says, human yearning in these short short stories? How do these short short stories use ma spaces. How do these spaces influence the story’s plot or movement? In the Comments and Discussion area, please give at least three examples of ma spaces for each story.

Writing Assignment

Write a story under 1000 words that deliberately skirts a main issue or problem. Use metaphor and carefully chosen and placed words to help you intimate what is actually happening in those “in between” or off-stage spaces. It may help for you to first make a list of what you want to be happening off-stage.