James Thurber imagined a hung-over Ulysses S. Grant meeting Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and surrendering his sword to the bewildered general from the South. Katherine Anne Porter told a tale of magic about a New Orleans prostitute who rebelled against her abusive madam and left the “house” only to return in a week, meek and mild, after the madam’s cook cast a spell on her. What do these stories have in common? Each one has a length of approximately 1,500 words, and there are many more such pieces, some even shorter, written by Chekhov, Crane, Kafka, Lessing, and De Maupassant. Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story,” weighs in at slightly over 600 words.
Reading flash fiction or short shorts of 500 to 1,500 words—some editors extend the word limit to 2,000—is like eating potato chips or cashews. You can’t “read” just one. You gobble them down, one tantalizing bit after another. Whether they’re called blasters, postcard fiction, micro-fiction, sudden fiction, short shorts or flash fiction, the essence of the genre is the same. The writer quickly gets into the story, establishes setting and character, sets up the conflict, fills-in critical back-story, then heads faster than a speeding bullet toward the climax and resolution.
FLASH FICTION ENRICHES WRITING ROUTINES
Almost every “How To” writing text stresses the importance of learning to write cleanly and concisely. Experts tell us to pare down our adjectives and adverbs and shorten lengthy prose by finding just the right words to describe character and setting. As writers, we hone our skills like trained athletes, but instead of setting physical tasks for ourselves, we exercise daily in our journals and notebooks. Through these writing exercises, we flesh out characters, try out themes, explore POV and voice and often create story drafts in just one sitting. Roberta Allen, in her text Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes, provides hundreds of story prompts for creating flash fiction in 5-15 minute exercises. These prompts—such as writing about a will, a death in the family, a disaster—are terrific journal exercises that spark our creative juices and often lead to initial drafts of flash or even longer works.
CREATING FLASH FICTION
To illustrate the process involved in creating a work of flash fiction, I’ll use one of my completed stories, “Wednesday’s Child,” as an example and lead you through six steps from the glimmer of an idea to the story’s climax and resolution.
1. The flash of an idea.
While perusing Allen’s book, the following prompts capture my imagination:
--Write a story about a child.
--Write a story about a secret.
--Write a story about a traumatic event.
An idea for a story begins to take shape, and I see a woman with a past riding on a streetcar. Let’s assume I have 500 words or less in which to tell her story.
2. Write the hook
The streetcar is crowded today, and Meeda has to stand in the aisle, her small suitcase wedged between her legs. But Meeda doesn’t mind. She is free, and, in a way, she is going home.
The first few sentences are critical. We open the story with the main character in action. A woman is going somewhere with a specific yet undefined purpose. A little suspense at the beginning helps draw the reader into the story. The name, Meeda, came from my Character Naming Book, and here’s the bonus: Meeda is an anagram for Medea. A symbolic name suggests all sorts of possibilities for enriching the story. Medea was skilled in magic and sorcery and eventually killed her two children. I’ll let my subconscious process this information while I move the story along.
3. Add detail and suspense
The car clangs to a stop. Meeda sees her reflection in a grocer's window. Her hair is tied in a bun. There are deep shadows and wrinkles under her eyes. The faded yellow dress the orderly laid out on her bed this morning doesn't help.
At Church Street, a seat becomes available, and Meeda unfolds her copy of the Gazette and, glancing at the classifieds, hopes she isn't too late. What luck finding the ad so close to her release.
I can see Meeda better now. The mention of an “orderly” and her “release” implies she’s been in a hospital, possibly a sanatorium. The ad in the newspaper is a significant detail that will appear later in the story. Where is she going? Why might she be late? Hmm.
4. Supply a brief flashback montage then add more action
The past eight years are a blur. Her short stay at Hudson County then the transfer to Pinehurst. Dr. Philby telling her she'd snapped like a twig on a cold morning. Her husband's disturbing letter: “I'm taking Janie away. Don't try to find us!” Such a contrast to Matron's lovely letter: Meeda has shown such devotion to our younger patients. The driver announces her stop. Meeda rises and walks to the back exit.
The information that Meeda “snapped like a twig” relates to some kind of mental breakdown. A little more action gets her off the streetcar and on her way.
5. Add back story, a major revelation and return to the present
Walking the neighborhood, Meeda shivers as a familiar vision returns. Early winter. A woman sits on the steps of an old brownstone dressed in a light cotton blouse and black woolen skirt. A small child stands beside her, resting a hand on her shoulder. The sun hits the limbs of a bare maple, casting shadows on the pavement below while the woman rocks an empty baby carriage to some inner sound only she can hear, a rhythm only she can feel.
Meeda didn't need eight years of therapy to understand she was the woman on the steps and the child standing by her side, Janie. She was such a good girl. But then came Nathan. What was the saying? Wednesday's child is full of woe. That was Nathan. She would sit and rock him for hours. And he would scream and scream. Nothing worked. Not the warm milk, the patting, the caressing, the soft tone of her voice whispering in his ear. “Quiet, Nathan, quiet.”
“Rats in the cellar,” she'd told the young clerk at Miller's Hardware. “I've tried everything. Everything.” And to this day, as far as Meeda was concerned, she had.
So she bought the colorless crystals in the bottle with the red plastic cap and mixed them in with Nathan's formula. Just to get a little sleep, she told herself.
Meeda is almost there now. Only a few more blocks.
This mini-scene, within the flash, fills-in crucial background information on Meeda, then quickly brings the reader back to the present action with a bit more suspense. “Only a few more blocks.”
6. Head quickly for the climax and resolution:
Meeda checks the address in the paper against the black numbers painted on the transom: 653 Tanner. Yes, this is it.
She goes up the stairs and rings the bell. A well-dressed woman opens the door. “Yes?” Andp then, after no response, “Can I help you?”
Meeda returns the woman's smile and holds up the newspaper, the words, full-time Nanny, circled in red. “I've come about your ad.”
Four hundred and ninety-three words later, Meeda and the reader reach their destination. The newspaper, mentioned earlier, makes an important appearance at the story’s end and underscores the themes that initially inspired the story: a child, a secret and a traumatic event.
I’m sure as you continue to experiment with writing flash fiction, you’ll discover other techniques that work well for you. As writers, you already have the tools to be successful. If I can do it, you can do it. Flash away!
- Allen, R. (1997). Fast fiction: Creating fiction in five minutes. Cincinnati, Ohio: Story Press.
- Howe, I, & Howe, I. W. (1983). Short shorts: An anthology of the shortest stories. NewYork: Bantam Books.
- Stern, J. (1996). (ed.). Micro fiction: an anthology of really short stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Flash/7
- Thomas, J., & Shepard, R. (2006). Flash Fiction Forward: 80 very short stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Thomas, J., Thomas, D., & Hazuka. T. (1992). Flash fiction: Very short stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Wilson, M.L. (2004). Flash writing: How to write, revise and publish stories less than 1,000 words long. Texas: Virtualbookworm.com
- Quick Fiction (www.quickfiction.org) accepts flash fiction from 25-500 words.
- flashquake (www.flashquake.org) defines “flash” as fiction and nonfiction of less than 1,000 words. However they admire brevity and will receive shorter works favorably.
- Vestal Review (www.vestalreview.net) likes flash fiction no longer than 500 words. It must have a plot and they love humor.
- Cezanne’s Carrot: A Literary Journal of Fresh Observations (www.cezannescarrot.org) accepts flash fiction and short stories from 100 to 3,000 words.
Paul Alan Fahey is a writer who has many credits online and in print magazines. His work has been anthologized and he writes a regular column for Fiction Fix at Coffeehouse for writers. His work is featured in local publications like New Times, Tribune, Coastal News and is forthcoming in African American Review. He is a member of SLO NightWriters, the premier writing organization on the Central Coast since 1998.
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