Other than the length of one thousand words or less, how do you describe flash fiction? In the first installment of this essay, I discussed how generalizations about flash are often contradictory. (If you missed part one, read it here.) Part of the beauty of flash is that it resists easy definition. Within that one thousand word limit is an incredible freedom. Of course, this is true of all fiction, but the variety of form in flash is particularly remarkable. Each piece dictates its own rules, creates its own universe. So, then: how do you talk about technique in flash fiction? Discussing the techniques we love best (without making generalizations) can provide inspiration for writers who experiment in the genre, and give longtime readers of flash an outlet for their impressions. Here, I discuss five techniques used in my favorite flash stories. Certainly, there are innumerable others. Share your favorite with us.
The Progression of The Surreal
Authors use the surreal in flash in all sorts of different ways. One thousand words is often the perfect size for an alternate reality. One technique that I’ve been drawn to, in particular, is this: many times, a surreal conceit is introduced at the beginning of the story, and then progresses to its logical end. Here, a complex surreal idea fuels the story.
In “Babies,” Amelia Gray introduces the conceit in the first sentence: “One morning, I woke to discover I had given birth overnight.” The story that follows develops this premise.
In “The Crown,” by Ben Loory, a dishwasher finds an invisible crown in the sink, and the rest of the action is propelled by his reaction to this discovery.
In “The House’s Beating Heart,” Kate Folk takes the reader inside a house that, as the title suggests, has a live, pulsing heart. Of course, the question soon arises: where are the building’s other organs?
Many of the pieces of flash I love best operate under some type of formal restraint (other than the word limit, of course), whether the author consciously imposed it on the story before writing it, or not. I was lucky enough to do an independent study on the short short with my advisor in grad school, and she pointed out to me that most flash doesn’t contain all of the formal “elements of fiction.” Many times, a story will focus on just one. Whether it’s allowing just one element of fiction, or limiting the story to all questions, all answers, or all dialogue—flash often flourishes under further restraints.
I love Jessica Soffer’s “Beginning, End,” a story that that is so moving because it is all plot.
In “The Mountainview Middle School Geography Bee,” James Davis limits his story to the dialogue of the mediator for this zany event.
Some of my favorite short shorts are meditations on everyday objects and occurrences. Lydia Davis is the queen of this technique. In a recent New Yorker profile, Lorin Stein is quoted on Davis’s writing: “The narrators are overthinking, and the overthinking tends to be funny, but the overthinking tends to be rooted in strong feeling.”
Lydia Davis’s story “The Old Dictionary” is an excellent example of this. In it, the narrator considers how she treats her dictionary in great detail, and compares it with how she treats, among other things: her plants, her dog, and—most notably—her son.
Dave Eggers, who has cited Lydia Davis as an influence on his own shorts, has also written stories that follow a character’s miniscule obsessions. In his story “Old Enough,” for example, the narrator imagines all the inappropriate things he could do if he were simply old enough. It begins: “He wanted to be old enough—old enough to hug anyone in any context.” The story continues down that line of thinking. (It’s in his collection from McSweeney’s).
The Speedy Freytag
Some pieces of flash fiction follow lighting-fast versions of the narrative arc found in traditional short stories. That is to say: a conflict is introduced, tension builds in the rising action, the conflict comes to a head at the story’s climax, then there is a brief resolution.
In Deb Olin Unferth’s story, “Soap,” the conflict is introduced right away: a mysterious creature is messing with a couple’s soap, and they don’t know where to place the blame. Tension between the couple rises as they try various ploys to catch the creature. At the climax, the perpetrator is revealed, and the couple’s relationship issues peak. Then there is a brief (dark) resolution. I’d highly recommend Deb Olin Unferth’s collection Minor Robberies, which is part of a three-book set from McSweeney’s that also includes Eggers’s collection.
In Ashley Farmer’s story “Where Everyone is a Star,” relationship tensions build to a climax within the context of a gymnastics studio where the narrator and her husband both work.
Small, Stand-Alone Scenes
Flash can also be comprised of a single scene that carries enough heft to stand alone.
Jim Heynen’s Book The One-Room Schoolhouse is a collection of flash pieces that centers on the same characters. Many of the stories are comprised, basically, of scenes (and could easily be published independently).
Lindsay Hunter’s “Tuesday” focuses on one evening shared by two very different sisters as it unfolds in real time.
What is your favorite flash technique? Tell us about it in the comments.
by Sadye Teiser