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.
As a reader of a lot of unpublished (and published) flash, I haven’t often encountered the “figuring out” flash piece, and that might make sense for a number of reasons: (1) not all flash writers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).
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.“
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).
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.
For further reading, check out FlashFiction.Net’s suggested readings of flash fiction and prose poetry collections, anthologies, and craft books, by clicking here.