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:
- Begin with an “expert” main character. Someone who knows the ins and outs of a dangerous environment will create excitement and interest.
- Stir up conflict. After the initial presentation of the character as an authority, introduce doubt about the reality of the situation.
- Expose the main character. An unreliable narrator makes it clear that all previous information can no longer be trusted.
- 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.
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.