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Flash Fiction Narrative Analysis: Jensen Whelan

[Editor’s Note: We are grate­ful to Lee Martin’s arti­cle “Stu­art Dybek’s ‘Sun­day at the Zoo’: A Class in Nar­ra­tive Struc­ture,” an arti­cle that served as our own mod­el for the struc­ture of the nar­ra­tive analy­sis essay of short short fic­tion.]


When writ­ing a flash piece that is meant to pro­pel a usu­al sit­u­a­tion to the read­ers in a deep­er or unusu­al way, writ­ers need to be able to use metaphor and jux­ta­po­si­tion along with word choice and dic­tion to make the piece inter­est­ing. I came across “How It Was when a Car Caught Fire on the Street out­side my House Last Night” by Jensen Whe­lan in the eleventh issue of Quick Fic­tion. What struck me about the piece fore­most was the extreme­ly long title which seemed to sum up the entire piece. It was intrigu­ing because it was so long, but also because I want­ed to know exact­ly what the writer meant by “How It Was.” I imme­di­ate­ly asked myself “How what was?” The rest of the piece relies on jux­ta­pos­ing the sit­u­a­tion of the narrator’s mar­riage and the burn­ing car out­side which serves as a metaphor for their rela­tion­ship.


The open­ing of this sto­ry imme­di­ate­ly intrigues the read­er as we won­der ‘Whose house? How? Why?’ It begins, “A car caught fire out­side my house last night.” The con­flict can be implied here as a uni­ver­sal; hav­ing a fire out­side one’s home seems like an obvi­ous con­flict of safe­ty for the char­ac­ters involved.


The next cou­ple of sen­tences empha­size the phys­i­cal con­flict, the dan­ger of how close this fire was to not only the narrator’s house but also all of the hous­es around the neigh­bor­hood: “The car start­ed to burn. Flames tick­led the roof, mak­ing the inte­ri­or glow…The fire lit up each of our hous­es.” This first sec­tion is about the out­side world, while the next para­graph imme­di­ate­ly zooms into the narrator’s house.


Sud­den­ly the read­ers are now inside the house and are intro­duced to a dif­fer­ent kind of burn­ing. Whe­lan writes, “My wife and I put on our shoes. It con­cerns me slight­ly that her imag­i­na­tion will do ter­ri­ble things to our child, but I know she means well.” The nar­ra­tor sees the imag­i­na­tion of his wife as a threat to their child, and her actions and thoughts affect him in a neg­a­tive way. She is the burn­ing car inside of the home. The nar­ra­tor tells us that he knows that they are in no imme­di­ate dan­ger from the car. The wife asks him what is hap­pen­ing and he replies, “I told her I couldn’t see through the smoke.” The nar­ra­tor is build­ing the sit­u­a­tion between him and his wife, depict­ing her as some­one who lives through smoke and mir­rors, lies and decep­tions. He reit­er­ates that when he writes, “I left the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cer­tain dan­ger hang­ing between us like the pot­ted plant I had man­aged to kill last fall when she was away on a busi­ness trip.”


It is obvi­ous here that we are deal­ing with an inse­cure and unre­li­able nar­ra­tor who believes that his wife is unfaith­ful. What is inter­est­ing in the piece is that the writer has used the form of the piece as a metaphor when he includes para­graph three which zooms out of the house and on the steps of the house: “After sev­er­al min­utes, the fire depart­ment arrived. We were in the mid­dle of our argu­ment when the door­bell rang. A fire­man is on the steps.” There is no longer a sep­a­ra­tion between what is going on out­side with the fire in the car and what is going on between the nar­ra­tor and his wife inside the home. The fire­fight comes into the home, bring­ing the out­side in. This para­graph is the only one con­tain­ing dia­logue of any sort. The fire­man gives them the all clear, gives the wife the assur­ance of safe­ty that the nar­ra­tor refused her. In this action, the nar­ra­tor is revealed as a con­trol­ling char­ac­ter who has an obses­sion with intru­sion with­in his home, his own par­ent­ing, and his rela­tion­ship to his wife.


In the fourth para­graph as the sto­ry comes to a con­clu­sion; the fire is out and the fire­fight­ers leave. We are zoomed back inside of the home as the struc­ture is cir­cling back through: “Clear­ly she had not been lis­ten­ing. That seems to be the major prob­lem with us. We just talk. Nobody lis­tens.” The fire­fight­er has put out the fire with­in the home, and in fact we see the narrator’s fail­ure to be active enough to solve this prob­lem. He can­not resolve the con­flict between him and his wife just like he can­not do any­thing about the fire in the car.


In the fifth and final para­graph, we are zoomed out­side as police have come to give the aban­doned car a tick­et: “Noth­ing so far has threat­ened the well-being of our son. The car is still sit­ting in front of my house, its hood split like a giant yelling mouth wait­ing for me, or some­body else, to final­ly do some­thing about it.” The fire­fight­ers have tak­en care of the fire but not the result­ing dam­age of the car. It sits in front of their house to remind them of what hap­pened. In the pre­vi­ous para­graph the wife decides to go to sleep say­ing that she doesn’t feel like argu­ing any­more. The fire­fight­er had dis­rupt­ed the fight, or put out the fire in the pre­vi­ous para­graph. How­ev­er, the outside/ inside dam­age is still there. The son is the reminder of the fiery argu­ments that they have, and he is what’s ulti­mate­ly dam­aged. We real­ize the char­ac­ter of the nar­ra­tor ful­ly in the final para­graph as some­one who can­not do much of any­thing about any of it. To final­ly do some­thing about it implies that the inside “fires” have been hap­pen­ing for a long time and that he has been pow­er­less to stop the dam­age, most­ly because he him­self is the prob­lem.


Not only does Whe­lan do a won­der­ful job of inter­twin­ing the deep sto­ry into a tight­ly knit short piece, but he also was able to zoom the sto­ry in and out with­out being jar­ring the read­er. He uses the burn­ing car out­side as a metaphor for their fail­ing mar­riage, and sim­ple, short sen­tences to move the sto­ry along. If we want to mim­ic Whelan’s struc­ture we would need to have the fol­low­ing:


  1. An open­ing that clear­ly starts with one kind of con­flict.
  2. The next para­graph to imme­di­ate­ly set up the mir­ror of the open­ing metaphor with­in the con­text of one or more char­ac­ters.
  3. Pay close atten­tion to the form of the para­graphs. Does the first para­graph begin out­side, and the sec­ond one inside? Do the para­graphs fit a pat­tern that helps to pro­pel the metaphor of the piece?
  4. The con­flict must be weaved tight­ly through­out through the mir­ror­ing metaphor. 
  5. The read­er must learn some­thing new about the rela­tion­ship of the char­ac­ters in each oppos­ing para­graph.
  6. The con­clu­sion must have a res­o­lu­tion which reveals some­thing about the main char­ac­ter and the cen­tral metaphor/ image of the piece. 


To write a short piece like Whelan’s, try start­ing with an image that reveals a con­flict right in the open­ing sen­tence or para­graph. Use it as a metaphor for the ‘real’ sto­ry of the piece. Play with form by mir­ror­ing two sit­u­a­tions from para­graph to para­graph. Have your character’s respond to each oth­er in shock­ing and unusu­al ways like when Whe­lan writes, “It con­cerns me slight­ly that her imag­i­na­tion does ter­ri­ble things to our child but I know she means well.” Use the metaphor in the first para­graph to dri­ve the sit­u­a­tion close to home for the read­ers. Don’t for­get to have fun with your form.


FF.Net Author’s Note

Stewart.jpgMaran­da Stew­art holds a Bach­e­lors of Arts in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from Kutz­town Uni­ver­si­ty. She is cur­rent­ly attend­ing Rose­mont Col­lege for her MFA in Cre­ative writ­ing with a con­cen­tra­tion in poet­ry. She has won the Ray­mond Ford Award for poet­ry and is enjoy­ing explor­ing the flash fic­tion genre. She agrees with William Car­los Williams who said, “It is dif­fi­cult to get the news from poems, yet men die mis­er­ably every day for lack of what is found there,” and believes that the same can be said about flash.

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