Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


Wednesday Therapy: Write the “Figuring Out” Flash

In an essay on short story structure, Douglas Glover writes, "Literature is a way of thinking in which you think by pushing your characters through a set of actions (testing that character in a series of scenes which involve the same conflict)." This single sentence (very much) changed the way I approached writing flash. Where before I wrote a flash piece to write a flash piece (if that makes any sense), I began instead to write to figure things out, for myself, my character(s), and any readers I'd be lucky enough to have.

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As a reader of a lot of unpublished (and published) flash, I haven't often encountered the "figuring out" flash piece, and that might make sense for a number of reasons: (1) not all flash writers are concerned with narrative flash that figures things out; (2) flash has become a form that resists rules and any attempts to constrain its possibilities with definition; (3) two hundred, three hundred, five hundred, even seven hundred fifty aren't a whole lot of words in order to figure something out, especially through "a set of actions." I do think, however, that flash could use some more writers drawn to its form because flash is a "a way of thinking" rather than as a way of writing a story very quickly (and of course flash is surely that).

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When I write the "figuring out flash," I try to get the character to ask, "Why?" Everything in the story turns to that purpose, as happens often in myths, when the heavens and world conspire to force the (un)lucky hero/heroine into that series of actions leading to revelation. Such a flash forces the character to ask what's behind things that have previously been taken for granted or have been avoided or have been too long accepted as "okay."

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Such flashes do work as therapy, for they become the way that I think about issues, ideas, the past, the world, and so on. There are of course many ways to think about these things: one could write an essay, enter a conversation, comment on a blog, paint a picture, sit in a bathtub surrounded by candles, smoke a clove cigarette, and so on. A cliched example might be the claustrophobic person stuck in an elevator. These confrontations often begin the flash for me, without explanation or back story or exposition, and they force characters to act in novel ways (well, novel for them, for sure, but novel for the reader, too, if one hopes to maintain a reader's interest).

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A less cliched flash I'm currently working on involves a father whose son has developed a persistent tic. It, for some reason, drives him crazy, this tic(k)ing son. The story is about figuring out, for the writer/father/reader, what's behind that crazed obsession to make it stop, and those actions lead (I hope) everyone deeper into the complexities of fathers, sons, and that clock that ticks like a bomb between them, ready to explode them apart in a flash, unless someone figures out a way to defuse it.

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From Randall Brown

What col­lec­tion was that, Shel­don? And thanks for the com­ment!

From Nancy Stebbins

This is fas­ci­nat­ing, Ran­dall, and has got­ten me to think­ing how it might apply to flash. One issue, I think, is not so much that word count doesn’t give us time to have the char­ac­ter try dif­fer­ent solutions–there are plen­ty of flash that read like short sto­ries, only shorter–but that it doesn’t give us room to “cov­er our tracks,” to hide behind the wizard’s cur­tain, so to speak, and so it ends up feel­ing too obvi­ous. Maybe that’s why the tra­di­tion­al short sto­ry, short­ened for flash, often don’t feel like it works. Do you think there are ways spe­cif­ic to flash to accom­plish this? I’m remem­ber­ing the sto­ry you men­tioned above, and that I liked it a lot. 

Great ques­tion, Nan­cy. I’ll be answer­ing it in an upcom­ing entry. Thanks!

From Chad

I think it’s a great chal­lenge to think about a char­ac­ter fig­ur­ing some­thing out in in a flash piece. Yes­ter­day, at the South­ern Writ­ers’ Fest in Nashville, Richard Bausch end­ed Q&A with some pro­found words of encour­age­ment about writ­ing, and one of them is that writ­ing is a form of men­tal health and that we are fig­ur­ing things out through our writ­ing con­stant­ly. It’s also about shar­ing, he said, and in pieces in which the char­ac­ters ask “why,” as this arti­cle sug­gests, we are fig­ur­ing things out right along with those char­ac­ters and with our readers–right on! 

From Randall Brown

Thanks, Chad. I like that sense of “shar­ing” from Bausch. Very cool.

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