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

Tuesday

Flash Craft: Make Me a Name, Pat It and Shape It

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
 

BrownGordon.JPGLorna 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *