[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:
- An opening that clearly starts with one kind of conflict.
- The next paragraph to immediately set up the mirror of the opening metaphor within the context of one or more characters.
- 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?
- The conflict must be weaved tightly throughout through the mirroring metaphor.
- The reader must learn something new about the relationship of the characters in each opposing paragraph.
- 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
Maranda 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.