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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.

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