Notable storytelling involves paying close attention to big concepts like psychic distance, point-of-view, and a reliable narrator, but success in these areas does not always produce memorable flash fiction. Sometimes it’s the small stuff that makes the story noteworthy. The small stuff? What we name our characters, how we handle details within the story, and in what way we add texture coupled with the aforementioned big concepts is the stuff of good flash.
A careless name can ruin a story but a well selected name can strengthen it. For example,the name Lake Woebegon, the fictitious home town of Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion, was so original and lasting it’s become part of popular culture, and we now have the Lake Woebegon effect described as the human tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities.
Kathy Fish in her story “Bud” expertly manipulates the names of her characters. For one, the story is set in a bar with the normal array of characters typical for this setting: the bartender, piano player, and the guy on the next stool. Not so typical is the protagonist, a little girl and playing second fiddle, her dog Bud, the only character in the story who gets a name. This in itself makes the story memorable and original. Finally Fish does something amazing. She introduces the antagonist, the little girl’s brother, at the very end of the story, and she brands him the rat. Who says characters have to have a proper name.
To name her characters, Pamela Painter in her flash “First Night of Married Life” uses pronouns. That the pronouns appear in italics adds validity and makes the pronouns come alive; they become proper names and work to guide and move the story along. Painter writes, “He said, if your mother hadn’t picked a society photographer he wouldn’t be stranded in Venice. She said, your sister repeatedly assured us that her adorable three-year-old ring bearer would not drop our wedding rings. He said, I told you it should have been a child-free wedding.”
These examples point to the thought that goes into selecting or not your names when formatting your stories and reveal the intricacies and direction a name can take a tale.
Details! Details! Details! Sounds like the house-buying mantra Location! Location! Location! How we layer details in our short stories has the same effect as applying color to a painting. Adept use of details pleases the senses and makes the story, well, interesting.
In Craig Moodle’s flash “The Grigologist”, appearing in Quick Fiction 14, a father at night instructs a son on the varieties of cricket: “That’s the four-spotted tree cricket, Oecanthus quadripunctatus. Down there, the regular chirp at the lower register? That’s a northern mole cricket, Neocurtilla hexadactyla. And the ones you can’t miss, yakking back and forth like they’re razzing each other, those are the true katydids, Pterophylla camellifolia.” Why list these common names of crickets and their Latin along with the names of two others in a flash less than five hundred words? Quite simply to illustrate how truly lost within his subject our lost grigologist, or its Latin “Grigologus daddus” is.
Details have double meanings in Steve Almond’s short “Where Cranes Come to Sleep.” The ambiguity is in whether Almond is referring to the steel machines used in construction or the family of long-necked bird on the endangered species list. Upon reflection Almond is most certainly describing the machines but he gives them birdlike qualities. “They know not to nod their giant necks, not to run their hooks against loose rebar” is how he describes these idle machines. Or is he referencing the birds? Throughout the story, a preponderance of soft images are lined up against hard to further the ambiguity. Nice way to illustrate details in a story and a perfect instance of details shading the atmosphere and yet sharpening it too.
The texture of a story can be described as its interwoven elements. In Melanie Rae Thon’s flash fiction story “Blind Fish” appearing in Flash Fiction Forward, she uses human elements to tell the story of sturgeons. Through her honest description of this fish we see its imagined humanity: “Swim bladders in their guts allow them to breathe air for several hours. Long enough to roll in the shallows.” Here is a fish that can survive out of water. She continues, “They are bottom feeders but not scavengers. This distinction is important. With their barbels they search the sediment for living prey: insect larvae, snails, worms, crayfish.” I imagine a sturgeon trolling through a supermarket pulling items off the shelf with its hands (barbels).
Thon continues to layer on these human-like qualities. Like people sturgeons they even have insight. She writes, “They are not blind after all; they see you. When they surface to feed in the shoals, their vision miraculously returns to them. Amazed, they understand that loss of sense is a choice of environment, a fact in the lake’s treacherous canyon, but not, in the end, irreversible. Seeing you, they are not grateful for the sight. They think, We did not miss much.” This weaving of fish qualities into human characteristics bumps the story into a surreal-like state.
Sometimes it’s the small things we remember most, and memorable characters often have remarkable names. Consider Huckleberry Finn, Pip, and Captain Ahab. In short, the position of well-chosen details and their placement in our stories make possible appealing and lasting flash fiction.
FF.Net Author’s Note
Lorna Brown Gordon is a poet living and working in the Philadelphia area. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently trying to master narrative fiction.