This week we’re doing the cult favorite of internet short stories, Desmond Warzel’s Wikihistory. This little story gotten love from internet giant sites like BoingBoing and Tor.com, so if it was familiar when you read it that’s probably why.
You’ll also note that this is the second flash piece to make it to the Craft Crucible. Maybe I’m not quite the flash-bigot I thought I was.
That the story is clever and hilarious goes without saying but that’s not why I wanted to analyze it. I went on when we did 7 Items about the efficiency required in flash fiction, and that applies to this story, too. But what has always caught my attention here is how it digresses effectively.
At 15:41:18, BarracksRoomLawyer wrote: Point of order: issues related to Hitler’s service in the Bavarian Army ought to go in the World War I forum.
This is the seventh entry in the story, out of thirty-one, so it comes just shy of a quarter of the way through. The reader is familiar with the premise, understands what the format is emulating, and we’ve already had two cycles of killing and un-killing Hitler. So why is this digression here?
Verisimilitude. No web forum ever has managed to stay consistently on topic. Human conversations don’t work that way. Anybody familiar with how communication on the internet works, even if they aren’t familiar with the particular sub-tropes common on wiki comment pages, is aware of this. Readers aren’t going to read the story and go, “No way, that was a completely unrealistic portrayal of internet communication,” if those digressions are left out. But including it is a communication straight to their subconscious and the message is, “Yup, this is a totally legit thing you are seeing.”
It also serves as the setup for the final punchline.
At 09:47:13, BarracksRoomLawyer wrote: Point of order: this discussion belongs in the Qing Dynasty forum. We’re adults; can we keep sight of what’s important around here?
I’m not going to explain the punchline, which is delightfully built on the irony of ignoring a valid point which went and got its advocate wiped out of history with no rescue in sight, but it’s there, buried in the digressions. This comment could have just been tacked onto the end, shortening the story even more, but then we’re deprived the sense of BarracksRoom Lawyer’s increasing frustration over the unruly conversational focus which colors the delivery of this last quip so well.
So yes, efficiency matters in flash, but that doesn’t mean that details which are there merely as signals for credibility and to augment the delivery of other pieces aren’t still critical. I’d argue that without these digressions, Wikihistory would just be another flash story with a clever, under-developed idea, and therefore utterly forgettable.
Next week: And Their Lips Rang With the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar.
After that: A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica by Catherynne M. Valente.