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

Tuesday

Yes, you read that title cor­rectly. Intrud­ing on a girls’ night out with “heaven must be miss­ing an angel “is not going to entice me. How­ever, giv­ing me a spec­tac­u­lar flash fic­tion opener may make me curi­ous of what you have to offer. You can make a suc­cess­ful con­nec­tion with your read­ers right from the start, and here are five tips on great flash begin­nings.

 

How do you rope the reader and not become tacky, tired, or bom­bard them in the first few lines? Some­times start­ing with ques­tions (rolling in the protagonist’s head from other char­ac­ters) gets things sim­ply mov­ing, espe­cially, if the ques­tions are hit­ting the reader with some scary ones. In “Swim­ming,” by T. Cooper and appear­ing in The New Yorker in April 2007, for exam­ple, the first short sen­tences are the fol­low­ing: “Peo­ple say to me, ‘didn’t you hear any­thing?’ or ‘Why didn’t you stop when you felt some­thing hit the bumper?’ But I don’t know how to answer either ques­tion.” I can hear the nosy peo­ple ask­ing the pro­tag­o­nist these ques­tions. It is an uncom­fort­able place, so as I read on, I am try­ing to imag­ine what I would do if I hit some­one with my car. He will always be guilty of this event (it seems) even if he turns out to be inno­cent. Very smooth tech­nique to keep you won­der­ing, I would say. I felt the need to keep read­ing and so will you.

 

Another entic­ing begin­ning is not just “some­thing” inter­est­ing said, but just plain being “some­one” inter­est­ing. My favorite prompt is mak­ing a bul­let list of all my char­ac­ters’ likes and dis­likes. I was a lit­tle appre­hen­sive of wast­ing good writ­ing time, but when I sud­denly knew how, my char­ac­ter reacted to any­thing he encoun­tered; it became one of my pre-writ­ing com­mand­ments.

 

A good exam­ple of char­ac­ter intro­duc­tion is in “Faulty Keys and Latches,” by Kathy Fish and appear­ing in Wild Life. I found her open­ing line about a guy not only with a “sort of a purse,” but it being “filled with rocks” to be a well-rounded char­ac­ter. We know three things about the pro­tag­o­nist in one short open­ing sen­tence: Male, Man-Purse, Rock Col­lec­tor. This tech­nique could really help in the com­pres­sion of longer pieces that start with long char­ac­ter intros. Sud­denly, I am not quite sure I need to know much more about his phys­i­cal­ity, because I want to know the quirky man’s use for those rocks. Why is he trans­port­ing them in a purse instead of a wheel­bar­row or paint bucket? These ques­tions moved the reader past unnec­es­sary descrip­tions, exposed the con­flict, and tied it all up from there.

 

When in doubt about a poten­tial flash fic­tion date going dis­mal, embrace the grim fore­shad­ow­ing and let it all implode or explode. A good exam­ple of this first sen­tence lead­ing into the deadly dis­mal is “A Wind From the North” by Bill Capos­sere and appear­ing in Imag­i­na­tive Writ­ing. He starts, “When three days had passed and the snow still lay in smooth unbrushed drifts across the cold glass and sil­very metal of the car, the neigh­bors, curi­ous or con­cerned began a trail of tele­phone calls that led, even­tu­ally, to my own heated home.” This first sen­tence fore­shad­owed some­thing dread­ful buried under the beauty of the set­ting. The author made a point to write “still lay in smooth unbrushed drifts” and I knew either a kid, ani­mal, or some­thing was lurk­ing under that unbrushed wind­shield. The neigh­bors were con­cerned, so I was con­cerned and kept read­ing. It is a great hook but does the work of lur­ing you in with grow­ing trou­ble, scenery, and intrigue—all cru­cial points if you want to keep the reader invested in your story.

 

If you must be cliche, turn it on its head. “Safety Instruc­tions” by Ker­rin McCad­den and appear­ing in Pank, Issue 6 does just that. She begins, “Unless directed by a crew mem­ber, do not con­struct if/then sce­nar­ios-not about the plane, not about your life.” This sen­tence is sort of laugh­ing at itself because most of us who fly are already ner­vous of the “if/then sce­nar­ios” let alone crew mem­bers pre-plan­ning our entire life by these deci­sions. McCad­den uses an unex­pected tech­nique to cap­ture atten­tion from the every­day and cliche. Writ­ers should try ele­ments of this exam­ple in their first sen­tences if they want to try jolt­ing a reader from think­ing they know what to expect.

 

Finally, a reminder about using the title as your first line: It worked if you con­tin­ued the next line coher­ently. How­ever, putting the ele­ments of the end­ing in the title or first line will give away your con­clu­sion. Steve Almond, men­tioned this idea in “Who Wants to Play with a Headless Doll” in This Won’t Take But A Min­ute, Honey (Essays). Just like try­ing to pick up that per­fect per­son sit­ting at the bar and fol­low­ing through, flash has a smooth process start­ing with the first line. Don’t tell the reader the Titled First Line is “Ten Days Ago in the Smokey Moun­tains” and then take us to your child­hood in Philadel­phia in the very next line. Remem­ber, don’t put any hints that are in the last line or you have ruined every­thing. Like when I end this Top Five list with a Steve Almond-type sass and use my dis­claimer: My words on great flash begin­nings are not fic­tion gospel, but the great­est verses I have read made me pray I would even­tu­ally write like that author.

 

FF.Net Author’s Note
 

Colborn.JPGCathy Col­born is a MFA stu­dent at Rose­mont Col­lege. She was pub­lished by Out­rider Press, Rip­ple Zine, and Writ­ers’ Bloc and cre­ated a small online zine called Philly Flash Inferno. She loves sketch­ing and paint­ing graphic art with a psy­che­delic spin and recently had her work pub­lished in Pirene’s Anthol­ogy ben­e­fit­ing Japan: Sun­rise from Blue Thun­der. Cathy has stud­ied ekphra­sis for ten years and cre­ated her own chap­books: Recy­cled Shoes and Stoned in Paris. On the week­ends she loves prepar­ing for the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse and bak­ing cup­cakes (but not at the same time).

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