Fixed Form Narratives

Reposting this piece on Fixed Form Narratives from my monthly column over at Flash Fiction Chronicles. I have a new column there on the first Monday of every month. Here’s April’s!

In my English classes in high school, I was never one for sonnets or villanelles. I found them to be a bit too restrictive and concluded that I must be a fiction writer, because fiction writers like their space. So you can imagine my surprise when the students in my flash fiction class in the fall almost unanimously reported that our unit on fixed form narratives was their favorite.

A fixed form narrative is basically a story that has rules that dictate its structure.   Think of them as the prose equivalent to poems that have prescribed lengths, rhyme schemes, etc. In prose, these fixed forms can be “organic” (like a story that masquerades as a series of Facebook status updates), or “abstract” (built around specific criteria, like word count, sentence count, and so on).

The more I thought about my students’ attraction to fixed forms, the more it made sense. Writers love writing prompts because they help generate ideas. But rather than offering students an idea to respond to, fixed forms help shape their work stylistically. This kind of play allows them a chance to be adventurous, forces them to try on new types of sentences, and refuses to let them settle for the first phrasings that pop into their heads.

In class, we tried out a few forms from Bruce Holland Rogers’ list (which is great, and can be found here). Then I asked the students to group up and invent their own fixed form narrative, complete with a name, a list of rules, and an example written by their group. Each group presented and we tried them all on for size. I wrote along with them and found my old fear of rule-based writing melt away.

I don’t know of any magazines that actively seek fixed form narratives (anyone?), so for now the added challenge of taking on these forms is that the resulting stories have to be brilliant in their own right, not just as examples of the form, since editors may or may not even know what you’re responding to. But fixed form narratives are also great for generative play. Once you have the idea and a few lovely images or sentences in hand, you can knock out the scaffolding and re-write the piece sans constraints.

I’ve got my eye on fixed form narratives as something I imagine we’ll be seeing more of as time goes on. Do hop over to Rogers’ website and try a few out on your own.

3 thoughts on “Fixed Form Narratives

  1. I love this idea of forms in prose! I had my students writing stories where they each had to trade part way through writing, picking up where the other left off. It’s a common exercise, but the students loved it. What I noticed was how much risk each student would take with these stories that they might not take with their own.

    I also had the same reaction to poetic forms in high school, except I just thought it meant I was supposed to write free verse poems. Now that I’ve got a few sestinas, ghazals and sonnets under my belt, I’m starting to really love the mix of challenge and freedom that constraint brings.

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