As flash fiction writers, we aim to create something new with our stories and we want each piece to be original and unique. A part of that process is focusing on our sentence structure and the variety of our individual sentences. Whether it’s using repetitious sentences to unify a piece, compressed sentences without excess words, or descriptive sentences that make the piece come alive, your particular sentences are what make up each story. And just as every word in a flash fiction piece is important, so are the sentences that those words form.
Tip #1: Use Unique Details to Vary Sentences
In “El Gitano,” appearing in Quick Fiction 11, Andrew Michael Roberts writes, “One morning he will die alone, bowl of dates on the bedside table, flies buzzing at the window screen. Snapshot of El Capitan in his top dresser drawer. Under his pillow, a postcard of Iowa corn.” The sentences that end this piece of flash fiction are varied, both in sentence structure and in use of description. Roberts includes peculiar details that go a long way to show his take on Castro as a character. With just three sentences, the author is able to set the scene, and he does it without using excess words or description. He is able to paint this ending of Castro’s life in short but varied sentences. We might strive to his level of compression and try to capture a scene in just a few sentences, as he has here.
Tip #2: Establish Character with Sentence Choices
In Kathy Fish’s “Wildlife of South America,” appearing in Wild Life, the writer contrasts sex between humans and animals. She writes, “There’s a male capybara mounting a female capybara. They’re just doing it…They lack ecstasy and that’s why it’s okay to show to kids” (13). Later she writes, “Before Rick and I do it, he showers, shaves, and gargles with Listerine. I shave my legs and shampoo my hair” (13). Fish’s sentence choices are interesting because her descriptions of how Rick and the narrator have sex lack passion, just as her descriptions of the capybaras lack passion. Fish’s sentences make sex between these characters seem superficial and yet there is a distinct difference between human and animal. People put thought into it and they think about their partners. With animals, it’s all instinct and drive. Fish makes bold sentence choices that in comparison, speak volumes about the characters.
Tip #3: Use Repetition to Create Unity
In “The Torturer Knows the Work He Does Is for the Good”, appearing in Quick Fiction 14, Michael Thurston begins every sentence, after the first, with “He…” For example, he writes, “He knows his work must be done with care and so he pays attention to the flow of water and the warning signs” (2). The story is made up of thirteen small paragraphs, most containing only one sentence. Each sentence, despite the unvaried sentence structure, reveals more about the character without being obvious that this man is someone who tortures for a living. The details that Thurston uses make it seem like being a torturer is just any other job, such as when he has the character think about how his wife and son would respond to torture: “He knows his wife would break the instant she perceived a threat to either of the kids, though standard procedure would dictate use of the battery just to be sure” (3). The repetition of the sentence structure allows us to focus on the details of this character.
Tip #4: Use Compressed Sentences to Capture a Moment
In “There’s a Hole in Your Shoe, Mr. Stevenson” by Kathy Fish, appearing in Wild Life, Fish conveys an entire worldview and relationship between two people in seven sentences. Working together, the sentences describe the young, naive ideology of a couple who has yet to experience the world. Fish writes, “They were democrats with an acute sense of irony. They ducked under an awning and he pulled her close, describing their future on her neck, the magnificent new world their children would inhabit” (11). So many things are going on in these two sentences. Fish continues with the present moment by having the couple duck under an awning. He is kissing her neck, which shows their young, fresh love. They believe at this moment that anything is possible and that their future, and the future of their unborn children, will be bright and hopeful. Fish doesn’t judge or condemn their future, she lets the characters enjoy the beauty of the moment. She is able to capture a moment and a feeling in only seven sentences. This story is a good example of compression and trying to create a moment in as few sentences and words as possible.
Tip #5: Breathe Life into Your Story
In “Summer Job,” appearing in Wild Life, Kathy Fish has two characters walking together. One character is showing the other the ropes at a cornfield where they will be harvesting corn all summer. The entire story is dialogue (without any quotations) from one character to the other. The sentences are not varied but contain useful and humorous information about what to do and what not to do in this cornfield. Fish writes, “Apply zinc oxide to your nose and your lips unless you want them to fall off. You might want to do something with your hair, too. It’s unladylike to sing dirty songs on the bus on the way to the field” (16). This story could have turned into a manual for working on this farm, but Fish breathes life into the sentences with funny observations, comments from the unnamed character about the other character’s clothes and hair, advice about the men on the farm, and so on. The sentences move fast and Fish has us walking with the new girl, experiencing her first day. We are in that field, standing in the heat. And she is able to capture this with a one-sided conversation.
No sentence can be included that doesn’t move the story along or show a desire within the character. The choices we make with each sentence can ultimately make or break a story. The next time you write a flash fiction piece, try to focus on the individual sentences and make sure each one achieves your intended purpose. Maybe take a story you have been struggling with and try to rewrite it in a different way. You can try to unify the story with repetition, or remove excess sentences and compress as much as you can. Or maybe try to show your characters through varied sentences and details. Whatever you do, don’t forget that every sentence counts.
FF.Net Author’s Note
Olivia Dean Guise received her BA in English from Wesley College and is working toward a MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. She is currently working on a novel and lives in the Philadelphia area.