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

Tuesday

Entering Into Flash: Beginnings

As a begin­ner, one of the most dif­fi­cult aspects of flash fic­tion is just that: how to begin. How to tell just enough, estab­lish set­ting and get right to the sto­ry. Jason Gurley’s “Flash What? A Quick Look at Flash Fic­tion” describes flash begin­nings as “abrupt” and end­ings “sudden…leav[ing] the read­er breath­less when fin­ished.” But cre­at­ing abrupt­ness that is intrigu­ing and not alien­at­ing is dif­fi­cult. In my flash fic­tion work­shop, I have dis­cov­ered five tips to cre­ate abrupt begin­nings.


Start mid-scene. Think of the clichéd begin­ning of the ring­ing alarm clock: unless some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing hap­pens the sec­ond the char­ac­ter awakes, why start a sto­ry here? Why not start at the heart of the con­flict? In “My Mir­ror,” I first draft­ed this descrip­tion:

She was my mir­ror. Dark eyes, long legs, stick straight hair we would braid in thick twin ropes. Friends, fam­i­ly debat­ed neg­li­gi­ble dif­fer­ences, but none of it was enough.

Although I began with image (see #2), it didn’t feel abrupt enough. What’s the harm in start­ing where the sto­ry real­ly begins? 

They said I have six months to a year,” my sis­ter told me. My heart clam­ored up my throat. We hadn’t spo­ken in years. 

This begin­ning gets us to the cen­tral con­flict, but didn’t feel abrupt enough. “Six months to a year” also seemed cliché.

It’s a tumor,” my sis­ter tells me. My heart clam­ors up my throat, strug­gling to get out, to recov­er from the shock of her voice on the line.

I’m still work­ing on it, but a few things improved here. The sto­ry is about the sister’s reac­tion to this news, so present tense gave it that imme­di­a­cy. “It’s a tumor” seemed like a less con­ven­tion­al and abrupt way to break the news. Hear­ing her voice on the line as opposed to “we hadn’t spo­ken in years” also keeps the scene imme­di­ate and in action. Which brings me to num­ber two.

Begin with dia­logue, action or image. One of the ways to start mid-scene is with any of the above three. Dia­logue brings us into an inter­ac­tion between char­ac­ters, while action and image place us visu­al­ly in the scene. My sto­ry “War” opens with action:

Their cal­loused hands gripped and shook as they pulled, heav­ing from side to side. Grunts were uttered and curs­es were thrown. Their red faces gleamed as joints popped, calves flexed and bare feet dug into the dry earth. It was the annu­al fam­i­ly reunion. The sun was high and shad­ows were begin­ning to form, which meant it was time for Tug of War. 

Instead of begin­ning with “this is a tug of war,” I described the action of the men pulling. I want­ed to put read­ers direct­ly into the scene by show­ing them the men. If only there were a bet­ter way to include the tug-of-war infor­ma­tion….

Weave in expos­i­tive details through­out instead of front­load­ing. “Show don’t tell” is an old writer’s adage, but is most impor­tant in flash where word count is essen­tial. Trust the read­er to dis­cov­er the cir­cum­stances through­out. Per the exam­ple above, I cut the descrip­tion of the reunion:

Their cal­loused hands gripped and shook as they heaved from side to side. Grunts were uttered and curs­es were thrown. Their red faces gleamed as joints popped, calves flexed and bare feet dug into the dry earth. The women watched from shiny plas­tic lawn loungers as the men bat­tled. “Is it always like this?” the wife of the youngest son said, smack­ing her gum and thumb­ing a mag­a­zine. “I mean, seri­ous­ly. It’s just tug of war.”

Here, we get some of those details through dia­logue. We also grasp that this is a fam­i­ly affair from the wife’s descrip­tor.

Use only essen­tial words. If the descrip­tion only calls for a frag­ment, use one. If you find need­less mod­i­fiers (the, and, very, etc.) remove or replace them with more use­ful words. Again, using the exam­ple above:

Their cal­loused hands shook as they heav­ing from side to side. Grunts were uttered, curs­es thrown, red faces gleamed, joints popped, calves flexed and bare feet dug in. The women lounged in lawn chairs as the men bat­tled. “Is it always like this?” the youngest sis­ter-in-law smacked her gum and thumbed a mag­a­zine. “It’s just tug of war.”

I went from 77 to 58 words, but main­tained the gist of the sto­ry. The brief list of descrip­tors recre­at­ed the same action in less space. I also replaced some words with what I thought were bet­ter ones: “loung­ing” instead of watch­ing, “sis­ter-in-law” instead of wife of broth­er. I also cut out “I mean, seri­ous­ly,” because it didn’t add much. More could be done, but this is a start.

Be epic. In longer prose, it may take just a para­graph for the read­er to keep read­ing or stop. In flash, it might just be the first sen­tence. Start with some­thing epic; don’t be afraid to make the sto­ry more out­landish than you’d orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed. What if my sis­ter sto­ry began from the end, where the healthy sis­ter shaves her head in sol­i­dar­i­ty and the sick sis­ter dis­ap­proves? What if the tug-of-war­ring men (which ends up being a metaphor for a feud­ing father and son) was actu­al­ly a descrip­tion of them gar­den­ing? I decid­ed to try out the last exam­ple:

Their cal­loused hands shook as they heaved. Grunts were uttered, curs­es thrown, red faces gleamed, calves flexed and bare feet dug in. Mom had assigned me and Dad to weed­ing, despite that gar­den­ing was her forte. With each weed’s legs pulled vio­lent­ly from the earth, the silence grew.

As a begin­ner, I am grate­ful for hav­ing dis­cov­ered some tips to tight­en my flash and make my begin­nings pop.

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About the Author

Cochran.jpgKara Cochran is in her first year of the MFA pro­gram at Rose­mont Col­lege. In 2011, she received her BA in Cre­ative Writ­ing and Ger­man Stud­ies from Deni­son Uni­ver­si­ty in Ohio. After grad­u­a­tion, she worked for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion and attend­ed law school for a year before com­ing to her sens­es and apply­ing to Rose­mont. At Rose­mont, she is the poet­ry edi­tor for the Rathal­la Review and writes poet­ry, flash fic­tion and nov­el-length work. Kara’s work tends to be influ­enced by her upbring­ing in a For­eign Ser­vice fam­i­ly, and although she spent much of her child­hood over­seas and in var­i­ous parts of the US, she has lived in Philadel­phia for two years and is proud to call it home. In her free time, she likes to read, run, drink wine, go to the movies with her hus­band and hang out with her orange cat, Clemen­tine.

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