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

Tuesday

Showing, Not Telling, In Flash Fiction

As some­one who is
new to writ­ing very short fic­tion, I have recent­ly re-learned the impor­tance of
the tired old Eng­lish-class phrase “show, don’t tell.” For the last ten years
or so, I have been work­ing on a nov­el in which my goal was length — just to get
to 60,000 words. But in flash fic­tion, when there are only 250 or 500 or 750 or
even 1,000 words to work with, sud­den­ly every word becomes more valu­able. I
have found that if I want to con­vey char­ac­ter, set­ting, mood, plot, and theme
in a very short space, show­ing becomes imper­a­tive. Here are some ways I’ve
tried to go about this, which you might also choose to use in your writ­ing.

Fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage is your friend. Sim­i­les
and metaphors are fine, but I sug­gest try­ing the rarely used synec­doche and
metonymy. Synec­doche — sub­sti­tut­ing the part for the whole (as in the clas­sic
exam­ple of “Friends, Roman, coun­try­men, lend me your ears”) or the spe­cif­ic for
the gen­er­al — and metonymy — sub­sti­tut­ing a name with a relat­ed word (when the “White
House” makes an announce­ment, for exam­ple), allow you to show while still
remain­ing firm­ly in a character’s point of view. Take this exam­ple, from a
flash I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on called “Active Shoot­er.” In this sto­ry, Lindy,
a teacher, is going through safe­ty train­ing after recent­ly — and reluc­tant­ly -
becom­ing engaged.

 

Atten­tion!” Bell says into the mic.
“Armed intrud­er in the build­ing! He’s in the lob­by.”  The teach­ers run for the exit on their left.
The sound of Bell’s next announce­ment — “He’s moved to the guid­ance hall­way!”
— is drowned out by the harsh sound of the phone in Lindy’s jeans. It is
Mark’s ring. In her haste, she had
turned the ringer on — not off. Rub­ber soles run out the door on the right
that leads to the lob­by.

                                                                                                           

 

Instead of say­ing
“the teach­ers all ran out the door on the right,” which is more telling than
show­ing, I used synec­doche, refer­ring to the rub­ber shoes run­ning instead.  My hope here was to keep the read­er in
Lindy’s mind. She is not look­ing at the oth­er teach­ers run­ning out, but she
would hear them leav­ing. By only describ­ing the shoes, I am try­ing to cre­ate a
ful­ly-real­ized action through a sub­tle ges­ture, one that does not drag the
read­er away from what is going on inside Lindy’s head. 

Think about emo­tion­al com­pres­sion. This
is an exten­sion of the synec­doche idea. By using sim­ple or sub­tle ges­tures, a
writer can con­vey an inte­ri­or emo­tion­al state with­out exten­sive expo­si­tion. Here
is anoth­er exam­ple from “Active Shoot­er,” this time from the very begin­ning of
the sto­ry.

 

Lindy’s atten­tion rebounds into the
audi­to­ri­um when the SWAT cap­tain calls on her. She walks to the front with the
oth­er teach­ers, pulling on the unfa­mil­iar tight­ness of her engage­ment ring.
She’ll have to get it resized, if she can ever get it off her fin­ger.

 

 

My goal here was
to get across all of the nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion with­out actu­al­ly telling the
read­er any of the expo­si­tion. I want­ed the read­er to know that Lindy is
recent­ly engaged and feels trapped. I tried to get this across by choos­ing my
details care­ful­ly. I referred to the “unfa­mil­iar tight­ness” of the ring,
sug­gest­ing that it is new and also uncom­fort­able. The fact that she can­not get
the ring off her fin­ger shows that she is stuck in a sit­u­a­tion she feels like
she can’t get out of.

Here is anoth­er
exam­ple of this, from a dif­fer­ent flash. This one is called “Lentils in Black
Rice,” and it is a trans­for­ma­tion of the ver­sion of Cin­derel­la writ­ten by the
Broth­ers Grimm. At this point in the sto­ry, the Prince and the Cin­derel­la
char­ac­ter are already mar­ried, but Cin­derel­la keeps revert­ing to her
pre-princess ways.

 

Ella only missed two gavotte lessons
before the Prince went to look for her this time. He found her, as he expect­ed,
in the pear grove, but unex­pect­ed­ly alone. He watched her spin nim­bly on her
toes, grass stain­ing the knees of her grey gown, hair whirling around her face.
She sang to the refugees from the pigeon-house that perched in the trees. Pear
juice dripped from her chin. The Prince thought of her on the sec­ond night of
the fes­ti­val in a shin­ing sil­ver dress, her hair caged in rib­bons and braids.
After mid­night, he returned with his axe.

 

 

I want­ed to show
that the Prince is hor­ri­fied by Cinderella’s rever­sion to her old life and that
he wants to mold her into his per­fect princess. How­ev­er, I didn’t actu­al­ly want
to say any of that. Instead, by hav­ing the Prince imag­ine her with her hair
“caged in rib­bons and braids,” I tried to con­vey that he wants her to be more
con­strained, more straight­laced, beau­ti­ful but formed to his desires. 

Show­ing through tem­po­ral com­pres­sion.
Time mark­ers can be very tell-y rather than show-y, and they can take up
valu­able space that might be bet­ter used by some­thing else. Think about if
there is a way to show the pas­sage of time through spe­cif­ic details with­out
actu­al­ly telling the read­er how much time has passed. I tried to do this in a
flash piece I wrote called “Luna e Talia,” which is anoth­er fairy tale trans­for­ma­tion,
this time using the sto­ries of both Sleep­ing Beau­ty and Rapun­zel. I want­ed to
show that many years were going by as Luna, the Rapun­zel stand-in, grows up in
her tow­er. I tried to do this by describ­ing her length­en­ing hair as opposed to
actu­al­ly stat­ing her age in each sec­tion.

 

Luna’s hair grows long, down to her
knees.

Her hair coils at her feet, rope
low­ered into a hole of light.

When she leans out the win­dow, the rope
of Luna’s hair reach­es halfway down the tow­er, tan­gling in the bri­ar.

When Luna’s hair has grown past the
bri­ars, she plaits it and cuts it off, tying one end around the foot of Talia’s
bed.

 

 

Each of these
sen­tences comes from a dif­fer­ent sec­tion of the sto­ry. Even in my fairy-tale
world, hair doesn’t grow exceed­ing­ly fast, so a great deal of time has gone by
between the first sen­tence and the last.

Some­times, maybe you just tell, not show.
When there are only so many words to go around, being short and sweet some­times
means just telling your read­er what hap­pened so you can move on to more
impor­tant things. Here is an exam­ple from “Active Shoot­er.”

 

Bell ges­tures to the offi­cer at the
back of the audi­to­ri­um, who steps out­side and rat­tles the doors. Lindy hud­dles
with Dan Bar­ton, the gym teacher, below the stage. Phil and Car­rie dive under
the piano, Kel­ly crouch­es behind the seats. The shoot­er pounds on the doors,
mov­ing clos­er to the entrance at the front of the room.

 

 I didn’t feel like I had enough space to get
very fan­cy with my lan­guage or go off on a metaphor­i­cal trip here. After all,
the piece is only 475 words! Instead, I chose to just say what hap­pened. What
each of the teach­ers in the demon­stra­tion is doing does not con­tribute as much
to the larg­er issue I am deal­ing with in the piece — that of Lindy being
trapped in her engage­ment — so I felt like telling it quick­ly was the best way
to get it out and move on. 

I hope these
tech­niques have helped you. I know they have helped me. Good luck try­ing them
in your writ­ing!

Lazer.jpgMol­ly Laz­er is an MFA can­di­date in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Rose­mont Col­lege. A for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at Mar­vel Comics, she cur­rent­ly teach­es high school, acts, and directs plays out­side of Philadel­phia. Her work has appeared in The Penn­syl­va­nia Gazette and Caesura.

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