Why Black Swans Make for Great Stories

In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh, a skipper for the Dutch East India Co., was sent from his native Holland to Australia to look for survivors of a ship thought to have been wrecked on the continent’s west coast. Despite all his efforts, he never found the vessel or any of its crew but he did come across something else: the presence of black swans.  Many strange and exotic species were being discovered in these uncharted territories at the time but this sighting was of particular importance, for up to this point in history it was thought that only white swans existed. So adamant was this belief that a popular proverb had circulated in Europe since the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in 82 AD : rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno ( a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan). This term was used ironically, in the same way that today we talk of pigs flying or pink elephants. The black swan was a metaphor for all that could not exist, until of course, due to an intrepid sailor, the impossible became possible. Once this happened the term’s meaning transformed: the black swan became a symbol of the improbable. In these times Corona Virus is seen as a black swan.

But what has this got to do with writing Flash Fiction? Well, quite a lot actually. The improbable, the random, the unexpected are what drive stories. If we followed a character that went about his or her daily business without a deflection of any kind we wouldn’t muster much narrative tension or impetus but when we lift that character out of certainty, introduce a glitch, a challenge to the status quo, then we assert enough pressure on them to reveal something insightful to the reader.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and his subsequent books, his latest being Skin in the Game explores this idea by looking at how society deals with seemingly random happenings and suggests ways to make our world black-swan-robust, in other words a society where we reduce the impact of events such as the market crash of 1987, or CV-19 and exploit the positive ones such as the internet.

Taleb defines the phenomena as something that:

  1. is a surprise to the observer,
  2. has an impact on their life,
  3. but with hindsight could have been expected.

These three criteria mirror closely the ingredients that a story moves through – conflict (surprise), deflection (impact) and resolution. The last condition is particularly interesting; this idea that the event was predictable. From the relative privilege of retrospection, we can work out the reason why wars start, why empires collapse, why economies crash. Often, the mark of a successful story is how, when looking back over the series of actions and choices the character has undergone, the outcome feels inevitable. With hindsight we say ‘of course!’ rather than ‘where did that come from’?

Whereas in the real world we strive to reduce the impact of negative black swan events, as writers we want to harness their power. Of course, this is Flash and whatever surprise we present the observer/character, it has to be kept to scale so here’s an exercise[1] in Black Swan generation:

Start with a character immersed in their daily routine and have them find a physical object which threatens their status quo either physically or emotionally. Keep the setting small – a room, the car, the garden shed, a cupboard. The object should create a strong reaction in the character, strong enough to change the course of their trajectory within the scene you have placed them in and act as a conduit to reveal something meaningful to both the protagonist and the reader. For example, a woman racked with remorse for an affair she had years ago, finds an earring in her husband’s sock drawer. And of course the outcome needs to fit within the whole; however slight or subtle, every twist and turn of the action must support the ending.

This idea of randomness and uncertainty can help in the creative process of writing itself. Much of the art of storytelling involves making connections between details that don’t seem to have any link. It is the tension created in this process that causes the reader to think “I must know how this is resolved.” If you are struggling for inspiration try developing a story combining a character from one of your story ideas with a predicament or setting from another. This may be enough to produce that single and interesting rare action that will push your character and story deeper. If you are at a loss for a seed idea, use a plot generator site (there are a variety of them on the web) for the same reason.

And remember that creativity thrives in the impossible. What you might think is difficult to achieve today will no-doubt become possible in the future and that includes producing a crafted and original work of flash fiction. So persist and you too will create your own positive Black Swan.

Join Amanda and myself for a weekend of interactive, supportive flash writing April 17th -19th. Then we have a 2 weekend memoir-in-flash course May 8th – 10th and May 15th – 17th. We then have a month of wonderful prompts for the whole month of June! More details here: https://www.retreatwest.co.uk/online-writing-courses/

Mary-Jane Holmes has work included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Her microfiction has recently been included in Best Microfictions 2019. A twice nominated Forward Prize nominee and Hawthornden Fellow, Mary-Jane has won the Bridport, Martin Starkie, Dromineer, Reflex Fiction and Mslexia prizes, and International Bedford Poetry competition as well as being shortlisted and commended for many more including the Beverley International Prize for Literature 2020, The Troubadour and Oxford Brookes Poetry prize. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize this year. Mary-Jane’s debut poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. She enjoys teaching creative writing both online and in person (when possible) around the world. She holds an Mst (distinction) in Creative Writing from Kellogg College Oxford and is currently working on a PhD at Newcastle University. @emjayinthedale  www.mary-janeholmes.com

[1] Adapted from Michelle Brook’s Rattlesnake In The Drawer writing exercise

 

Resilient Thinking & Live Flashing

Retreat West held two workshops at London Bridge Hive on 23rd March. Today, I want to share my thoughts on attending the sessions.
 

Morning session: Resilient Thinking for Writers with Isabel Costello and Voula Tsoflias

When it comes to the subject of writerly self-care I tend to fall into the category of bottle it up inside until it all comes tumbling out at the worst possible moment. With this in mind I was a little hesitant for the first of two workshops at London Bridge. However, Voula Tsoflias’ psychology experience and being a fan of Isabel Costello’s excellent blog Literary Sofa was enough to grab my interest.

As was pointed out during the session, the ‘Resilient Thinking’ workshop could just as easily be called ‘Rational Thinking’, which is something else I can struggle with! Following a brief introduction, Voula Tsoflias provides a dissection of cognitive behavioural habits, which as well as being a fascinating subject, also provides a way into understanding our insecurities and bad practices. Knowing that there is a basis for our irrational thoughts allows us to take an objective view and apply the resilient thinking skills taught in the workshop to our own experience.

With a better understanding of what’s going on under the bonnet, Isabel Costello, then takes us through her experiences, how setbacks initially affected her, and how she was able to come through them, gaining a better perspective on her writing and even becoming a better writer on the other side.

It’s easy to minimise rejections and struggles as part of what a writer must go through but I came away from the session realising that rather than merely having to face such difficulties, you can learn to handle them better and even use them to fuel the writer’s life.

 

Afternoon session: Fantastic Flashing Live with Amanda Saint

I enjoyed Amanda’s online Fantastic Flashing course last year and so had a better idea of what to expect for the afternoon workshop. This is an intense three-hour session whereas the online course takes place over two weeks. Like the online course, the workshop provides plenty of flash fiction insights in a simple, easy to understand way, in between creating your own flash pieces to a range of prompts.

Writers are able to read their work to the group (if they wish). The focus is very much on drawing positives and there was no pressure to come up with a spontaneous masterpiece, although it was surprising how freeing the experience can be, the prompts and time limitation providing excellent motivation!

 

Conclusion

I enjoyed and benefited from both workshops, the relaxed atmosphere and structured sessions made the most from the time. Getting to share common experiences with other writers was an added pleasure. Thanks so much to all three tutors for a pleasurable day and excellent learning experience!
 

 
Resilient Thinking for Writers will run again at the Mslexicon Festival on 12th-14th July.
 
Amanda will be running the Fantastic Flashing Live workshop again in the autum and you can find out more about her Fantastic Flashing online course here.

 

Isabel Costello is a novelist and short story writer with a background in marketing and communications. Her debut novel Paris Mon Amour was first published in eBook by Canelo and later in paperback under a new Literary Sofa imprint named after her influential blog. Isabel’s candid posts on her challenging and unusual journey to publication have attracted a wide audience, inspiring her to become involved with the WoMentoring Project and to develop the Resilient Thinking for Writers workshop in partnership with Voula Tsoflias.

Voula Tsoflias is an author and corporate psychologist who specialises in helping business people to excel and succeed. She is an expert in the current hot topic in her field: the development of the skills of psychological resilience. Voula’s debut novel Honor’s Shadow was published by Karnac in 2011. She is a contributing author to The Psychology Book, published by DK in 2012 and winner of the British Psychology Society Book of the Year award.

Amanda Saint is a novelist, short writer and the founder of Retreat West. She is also the commissioning editor and publisher at Retreat West Books. Her debut novel, As If I Were A River, was a NetGalley Top 10 Book of the Month and a Book Magnet Blog Top 20 Book of 2016. Her new novel, Remember Tomorrow, is available now and her short story collection, Flashes of Colour, in 2020. Amanda designed and teaches several online creative writing courses and teaches live fiction writing workshops at literary festivals and writing retreats. Her short stories have been widely published and longlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize and the Ink Tears Short Story Prize. She has been designing and judging flash fiction competitions for several years.