Thursday, September 2, 2010

The fun of flash fiction

Elizabeth Zelvin

It’s somewhat presumptuous of me to blog about flash fiction after having written exactly two of what I believe used to be called short shorts, stories, in my case, of under 500 words. On the other hand, I was a poet for thirty years, so I’m no stranger to telling a story as concisely as I can and ending it with a twist or a knockout punchline.

One of the ways writing short stories in general has helped me improve my craft is by giving me lots of opportunities to establish new characters, each with a distinctive voice (or so I hope). In flash fiction especially, you have to jump right in and let the characters take it away. You’re not going to develop the plot a lot, but something interesting is going to happen—whatever bright idea or tidbit from the news struck you as remarkable. You’re going to set up the situation, the characters are going to do their thing—briefly—and then biff! bam! pow! you give them the grand finale in a line or two.

So far, I haven’t tried to write an actual flash mystery, with a crime, investigation, and solution. I don’t know how many people do that. For me, the form lends itself to sudden death, without the intervention of a detective or indeed any kind of good guy. The characters have a dilemma, and the murder is both the solution to that dilemma and itself the twist at the end. The persona of the author in such a story is much more morally ambiguous figure than in a longer short story or novel. At least, this is true in my own work. There’s no time to take a stand in flash, no time to worry about whether the reader is going to feel comfortable with how things go. And for writers who prefer to make their readers uncomfortable, I suppose, there’s no time for a leisurely harrowing. You have to creep them out in, yep, a flash.

In a flash piece, I don’t worry too much about making every detail true to the facts of life. On the other hand, every detail has to count. You have a limited number of building blocks to construct a convincing world that the reader will see as if peering in the lighted window of a house from a passing car.

My most recent flash story (right, the second one) is a “what if” inspired by a real event: the finding of a pot of Roman coins by a British treasure hunter. We’re talking big numbers: 52,000 silver and bronze coins. Some pot. In my first draft, I made it a bronze pot to emphasize the heaviness. My husband, a serious history buff who knows both his Romans and his ancient Britain, objected. “The pot wouldn’t have been bronze,” he said. Actually, he said it wasn’t bronze, because he’d seen the news story elsewhere.

What happened in real life wasn’t important. But if there’s no way the pot could ever have been bronze in that period and culture, I couldn’t say it was. “They used ceramic pots,” he said. Not being a writer, he couldn’t see why I wouldn’t say “ceramic pot.” It would have been an unnecessary speed bump, when a story this short has to be a sprint for the reader with no distractions. (“Why didn’t it break?” I can envision the reader asking. “How heavy could it be, if it was only ceramic?”) I settled for “a pot heavy with coin,” which is indisputable and gives the right impression.

One fascinating aspect of writing flash is that I seem to be able to do it with my husband in the room. Both times, the source of inspiration was an article on the Internet. As it happens, my first flash story (yep, the other one) was also inspired by a British treasure find. I could immediately picture the appropriate murder, and I wrote the whole story in less than an hour. Ordinarily, I require solitude to write: “Shush! I’m writing! Go away!” But sprinting through a flash, I’m at the finish line before he has a chance to distract me.


Jim Harrington said...

Good article, Elizabeth. I write primarily flash and most fall into the mystery/crime genre (
and As with many of the flash stories in the genre, the focus is more on the crime and the criminal than actually solving the crime. Perhaps that's due to the length constraints.

Sandra Parshall said...

I envy your ability to write short, Liz -- and it's fun to see you discovering this new talent!

Sunny Frazier said...

I love to write flash. Here's my advice to authors:

Never use the word "it." Don't use a nothing word when all the words count. Use words that shine.

Put one true fact in the story. Something readers can walk away and say to friends "Did you know. . .?" Often my stories are centered around the fact.

Keep characters down to three at the most.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sunny, I couldn't resist checking my flash stories to see how I'd done on your criteria. Fact, yes. Three characters, yes. But I couldn't do without a sprinkling of "it"s. I think it depends on how you use 'em.

jrlindermuth said...

Good flash fiction is like haiku. Bad flash is...well, bad story. They aren't as easy to write as some readers think.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've thought of something else flash is like: shaggy dog stories with a good punch line. :)

Barbara E. said...

've had a lot of flash fiction published. I started doing it because I'm a naturally succinct writer. It's a great adjunct to longer fiction that I'm wrestling with for a longer time. One can even write flash fiction in one's head, like poets do with short poems. I teach this too, and here's the short advice list I just gave my students, who are writing one-page stories: Get mileage out of the title to set it up. Start deep, close to the main action. And every sentence - every word - has to bear weight.
Barbara Emrys