As any mystery buff knows, hints are tricky devils. Too few, and one feels lost amid seemingly disconnected events and characters. On the other hand, oversaturation can seem condescending and takes the fun out of it. A good mystery walks the knife’s edge between the two. If successful, the Big Reveal sends readers flipping back through the pages, looking for the clues they picked up on and the ones they missed, satisfied in their own ability to deduce even parts of the truth from the breadcrumbs.
Hint Fiction, brainchild of one Robert Swartwood, must walk a similar balance, I think. Much like a mystery, the author is asking the reader to contribute his or her own thoughts to the work presented. When successful, the reader may break into a knowing grin or inhale slowly. A short “Hmm” expressed as a single chuckle is not uncommon. These reactions are provoked by a synthesis of the author’s direction and the reader’s imagination.
My brief flirtation with the form (documented on my Facebook and Twitter) felt more akin to writing short-form poetry (haiku in particular) than to writing fiction. The word economy was certainly a contributing factor, but I think it also came from the pressure to be profound. There is an expectation to deliver a literary “Oh Snap!” moment, a barb or twist within your 25 words that will turn your readers on their heads. This makes bad hint fiction induce groans and even good hint fiction feel slightly contrived. The form already lends itself to darker iterations, so much so that the expected punches become predictable after reading through a dozen entries. Thus, for maximum effectiveness, doctors recommend taking no more than two every four hours.
Then again, without the bit of cleverness, would hint fiction be what it is? Would it even work? “Dave bought some eggs at the store, then stopped for a chai before heading home” could be called hint fiction, but it doesn’t feel like hint fiction. We expect the brief sting of the willow switch or the not-quite-audible murmur of sinister laughter. Without it, the story falls completely flat.
I suppose the ultimate goal is to weave in a sort of Dubliners-style subtlety that leaves the final product open to interpretation. Thus, like with the rest of the writing world, all one need do to excel is be brilliant. Easy enough.