How do we find new and surprising ways to write about familiar topics like love, loneliness, or rejection? The following examples use narrative techniques of perspective, back story, character imagination, and jarring language and abrupt shifts to transform the familiar into something new and surprising. Master these techniques in your flash fiction and your readers won't be able to put them down.
1. Transform the meaning of something familiar to readers with jarring language and abrupt shifts
How do we write about something such as love in new and surprising ways? Elizabeth Ellen in her story "Let Me Tell You Something," appearing in Rose Metal Press's A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness, surprises the reader with jarring language when she describes love in this way: "When you feel you would be willing to drink the bathwater of the person seated across from you, that's when you know you're screwed." Now that's either love or crazy or crazy love, but boring, it is not. The language dares you to read on. Ellen pairs this with an abrupt shift in the next sentence: "'I think I am no longer capable of falling in love,' you say and I laugh as though this is the funniest thing you have ever told me." The reader is confronted with the fact that the beloved might not feel the same about drinking the bathwater. The abruptness with which the narrative shifts is surprising and engaging. This is not the same old love story.
Try this technique with your own stories. Find unique, even shameful ways to describe the familiar in a relationship. Lead the reader on, then make and abrupt shift in the narrative direction, surprising things are bound to happen.
2. Transform the reader using unique perspective
Kathy Fish's story "The Cartoonist" appearing in elimae and her Matter Press collection Wild Life is a great example of using a unique perspective to create something new and surprising. Fish describes a family of four eating dinner, which would be a rather mundane slice of life if it weren't for the surprising perspective from which it is told. Fish casts the reader, with the use of second person pronouns, in the role of cartoonist. A bird gets into the house and the mother whacks at it with a broom: "Exclamation points all around her head." The father's thoughts are depicted in a cartoon bubble: "Sit down you lunatic." This comical scene takes center stage. Then the humorous tone makes an abrupt shift in the penultimate sentence with the description of the oldest child: "Big brother in the shadow, slumped against the doorway, his baggy jeans and narrowed eyes." Fish then instructs the reader to "draw him smaller than everything else." The shift in tone surprises with its emotional intensity. It is achieved by juxtaposing the comical with the sad, as a cartoonist might draw it, thus powerfully illustrating the impact of the family dynamic.
Experiment with this technique by asking, "What would a scene or situation that you're trying to write look like through the eyes of _______ [my mother/mother-in-law, a bear, the family dog, a New York City iron worker, the baby, and so on]"? Fill in the blank with something new and surprising and try writing your story or scene from that view point. Then make a shift in tone that redefines the meaning of the story.
3. Transform the elusive into the concrete using character's imagination
In "Quarters," appearing in 42opus, Amy L. Clark transforms the elusive quality of loneliness into a concrete thing like quarter sculptures in this story of a pregnant wife missing her husband. While alone at the laundromat, the protagonist bemoans her husband's decision to join the Marines and all the ways his decision has altered her life. Egg, the "retarded sentinel" attendant, provides quarters when her dryer malfunctions. The protagonist "imagines a life for him" in an apartment above the laundromat. Clark writes:
His room is a perfect museum. Sculptures made by this solid, retarded genius, all out of quarters. He has quarter telephones, quarter fruits, intricate quarter birds--cranes like metallic origami, silver shining humming birds caught in still flutter. She imagines lying down with Egg on a bed made entirely of coins, his fat fingers tracing the midline of her burgeoning belly down to the hem of her old underwear. She can see in her mind his hands turning to quarters themselves, making a ringing sound as his knuckles flex against her.
Egg is transformed from something repulsive to lover, from a simple man solving her need for quarters into the solution for her loneliness. This magic is performed with the use of the protagonist's imagination and a pile of quarters. The quarters begin as ordinary coins; then Clark performs "metallic origami," changing them into the bed and hand of a lover—;surprising moves in such a short space.
Perform "origami" with your own stories. Select an everyday item, something organic to the story, and use your character's imagination as the container within which to transform the object into a concrete representation of an emotion like love, lust, grief, or anger. Clark's transformation is done in three phases, 1) present ordinary coin, 2) transform quarters into beautiful sculptures, 3) merge quarter sculpture with repulsive attendant. Voila! The result is a concrete representation of what she desires most, a lover to resolve her loneliness.
4. Transform the ordinary into the bizarre using back story
In "Cake," appearing in Caketrain Press'sTongue Party, Sarah Rose Etter transforms cake into a shameful fetish using back story. The protagonist's husband brings home a cake. The wife closes the blinds as he enters the house. They don't speak as they perform what appears to be a ritual. Etter begins to reveal this cake as something other than a celebratory thing by hinting at the back story. She writes, "My only consolation is that it is not German chocolate cake. That cake can make my stomach turn for days, can linger in my intestines slowly crawl around inside of me." The story continues in present time, slowing down to describe in great detail the unwrapping of the cake, the cake itself, and the wife's preparing to take her first bite. Etter uses the moment of the fork piecing the icing to shift into back story, using this signal phrase: "The first time we did this, I didn't understand." Etter deftly transforms the celebratory idea of cake into something shameful using language one would use to describe a demoralizing sex act. "Let me watch you eat it…I want to watch you eat the whole thing," the husband says to his wife. That first cake was carrot cake and "since then, there has been one cake every two weeks."
Etter's use of back story is essential to transforming cake into a symbol that is pivotal to the meaning of the story. She builds surprising tension by teasing the reader with tidbits of information about what has come before, using different cake flavors and rituals to suggest that this has happened many times. She slips into and out of back story using the signal phrase "the first time." Etter then describes one episode of the cake eating ritual that defines what cake really means to this couple.
Make this technique your own. Select an ordinary item like cake or a boot, a thimble, the more ordinary the better. Transform the meaning of this ordinary item using back story. Use signal phrases to hint at what has come before, "the first time" or "the third one was yellow." Build tension by sprinkling in details that distinguishes the different incidences, while not telling the whole story, "good thing it's not German chocolate" or "I can't believe we never got caught." Then describe in detail one incident that represents the whole history, using language that transforms the ordinary item into something very different, shameful, or opposite. Finish with a signal phrase like "since then" or "Fridays," phrases that suggest to the reader what has come before will continue into the future.
Flash fiction requires writers to take risks and write into the unseemly corners of life. Try one or all of these techniques to dig at those corners and your flashes will be never be the same.
FF.Net Author's Note
Tori Bond is an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) candidate at Rosemont College. She graduated from Rutgers with a degree in English and holds an Associate's degree in computer science. She identifies herself as a novelist, freelance writer, mom, and failed housewife with a flash fiction habit.