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Tuesday

Flash Narrative Analysis: Beverly Jackson’s “Buddha Gold”

Chelsea Cov­ing­ton Maass

 

Some clever flash fic­tion writ­ers have mas­tered the art of the lure. As writ­ers, we all want to dis­cov­er a mag­i­cal nar­ra­tive struc­ture that will suc­ceed in hook­ing read­ers. Bev­er­ly Jackson’s “Bud­dha Gold” from the twelfth vol­ume of Eclec­ti­ca Mag­a­zine pro­vides an excel­lent nar­ra­tive exam­ple: the begin­ning snares the reader’s atten­tion, the mid­dle holds the reader’s inter­est with con­flict, and the end reveals new infor­ma­tion before releas­ing the read­er from the story’s grasp.

 

Jackson’s flash piece starts with an expert nar­ra­tor, Char­lene, who is so com­plete­ly at home in her envi­ron­ment that the read­er nat­u­ral­ly trusts her ver­sion of things. Read­ers want insid­er infor­ma­tion, so when char­ac­ters offer up the truth about unfa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions, it cre­ates inter­est: “Pigeons were her spe­cial­ty among the women. The ten-dol­lar play­ers looked for men in the Rodeo Dri­ve suits with fat wal­lets, but Char­lene did nice­ly with vis­it­ing Per­sian house­wives, bored girls who stood around wait­ing for their boyfriends, and odd­balls like this Chi­nese chick. In a five-dol­lar game, she could go home with as much as $500 on a good night.” Peo­ple are curi­ous by nature, and this set­up pulls read­ers in by offer­ing a voyeuris­tic view of anoth­er person’s life expe­ri­ence. The strat­e­gy is most effec­tive when it involves a dan­ger­ous or fringe lifestyle, like the female hustler’s point of view in this sto­ry.

 

In the mid­dle of this flash, Jack­son intro­duces doubt: “Char­lene nod­ded and looked around the room. Did she like it? There were no acci­dents, right? It had come to be her life. She could feel the girl star­ing at her. It made her squirm. What did she see? That same shiny hunger that was in the eyes of the oth­er reg­u­lars?” Char­lene, once so sure of her­self and her sur­round­ings, now seems uncer­tain under the scruti­ny of anoth­er char­ac­ter, Mei Li. Charlene’s sud­den shift in atti­tude from cocky to ques­tion­ing makes the sit­u­a­tion feel dan­ger­ous. When things turn in a new and unex­pect­ed direc­tion, the read­er detects con­flict, which height­ens inter­est in the devel­op­ment of the sto­ry. Flash is so short that any hint of pre­dictabil­i­ty should be strick­en. Read­ers want new, fresh, unfore­seen flash, not time­worn sto­ries that hap­pen to be short.

 

Jack­son increas­es the uncer­tain­ty of her main char­ac­ter, esca­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion: “It made Char­lene feel bad about herself—the bleached hair, too much make­up. Skimpy skirt, too much leg. She sighed. She would like to go to the alley and take a lit­tle hit; it would make her feel bet­ter.” Now the read­er dis­cov­ers that Char­lene is a drug addict and pos­si­bly an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor. The sure foot­ing of the ini­tial set-up slips even fur­ther as Char­lene begins to sus­pect that Mei Li is the true hus­tler and she is the mark.

 

The pow­er tran­si­tion occurs when Mei Li propo­si­tions Char­lene, who at first seems hor­ri­fied by the idea: “Did she look like a whore? Had it come to that? How many of these high-rollers had she bed­ded down?” But then, Charlene’s addic­tion and the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion over­whelms her and she imag­ines giv­ing her­self over to Mei Li. “She could almost envi­sion a large, gold­en Bud­dha before her, kind face, big soft hands. She pic­tured her­self kneel­ing down.” The sto­ry ends with Char­lene ask­ing how much mon­ey she might make work­ing for Mei Li as a pros­ti­tute. With that final sen­tence, all of the orig­i­nal assump­tions in “Bud­dha Gold” have been turned inside out. The read­er fin­ish­es the sto­ry with a new truth, and that feel­ing of hav­ing some­thing revealed over the course of the sto­ry is sat­is­fy­ing.

 

With this nar­ra­tive for­mat, Jack­son man­ages to sub­tly shift the sto­ry until it is the oppo­site of what it first seemed. Instead of an insider’s look at an expert gam­bler con­ning an unwit­ting vic­tim, the read­er receives a depic­tion of a down-on-her-luck addict turn­ing to pros­ti­tu­tion as she real­izes she has no con­trol over her sit­u­a­tion. To achieve a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive struc­ture, fol­low these guide­lines:

 

  1. Begin with an “expert” main char­ac­ter. Some­one who knows the ins and outs of a dan­ger­ous envi­ron­ment will cre­ate excite­ment and inter­est.
  2. Stir up con­flict. After the ini­tial pre­sen­ta­tion of the char­ac­ter as an author­i­ty, intro­duce doubt about the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion.
  3. Expose the main char­ac­ter. An unre­li­able nar­ra­tor makes it clear that all pre­vi­ous infor­ma­tion can no longer be trust­ed.
  4. Reveal a new truth. At the con­clu­sion of the sto­ry, the nar­ra­tor should be hum­bled and star­tled by the unex­pect­ed real­i­ty that emerges.

 

To write a flash piece that fol­lows the nar­ra­tive pat­tern in “Bud­dha Gold,” try to pro­vide the read­er with unex­pect­ed insid­er infor­ma­tion. Remem­ber, the main char­ac­ter doesn’t have to be like­able, just inter­est­ing. Have fun with it—a carnie might believe he is king of the fair­ground, for instance. Imag­ine the sit­u­a­tion from the main character’s point of view. Now, think about how things might real­ly be, despite the insider’s beliefs. Is the carnie real­ly roy­al­ty? Of course not. To ini­ti­ate con­flict, intro­duce doubt about the main character’s per­ceived author­i­ty. Anoth­er char­ac­ter might help read­ers dis­cov­er an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor. Per­haps the fair­ground man­ag­er talks down to the carnie in front of a cus­tomer to clue the read­er in on his true sta­tus at the car­ni­val. Final­ly, expose a new ‘real­i­ty’ in the sto­ry. When the char­ac­ter achieves a new per­spec­tive on the truth, the read­er will share in the rev­e­la­tion. So, what kind of fringe lifestyle would you like to explore? Indulge your curios­i­ty and write from the insider’s point of view to gain the insight this nar­ra­tive exper­i­ment will sure­ly yield.

 

Author’s Note

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Chelsea Cov­ing­ton Maass has lived in Kansas, San Fran­cis­co, and now Philadel­phia, where she is an MFA can­di­date at Rose­mont Col­lege. Her recent fic­tion can be found at HOOT Lit­er­ary Review.

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