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


What Does It All Mean in a Flash? Using Allusions to Nail Your Last Lines

Perfecting last lines is of upmost
importance for flash writers since endings are often what readers will remember
most about a short short story. If you fail to deliver, readers may not come
back for more. But how do you "nail" it? In a
Guardian interview, flash writer David Gaffney states
that a story's last line "should leave the reader with something which will
continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the
story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to
think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant."[1]
As a student and beginning writer of flash, I find Gaffney's advice
inspirational and am experimenting with new ways to make my last lines "ring
like a bell."

To do so, I like to use allusions--a
reference to another literary or historical person, place, or event without
explicit identification[2]--in
my final sentences. For example, in
Ghost of Natalie Wood,"
was recently published in Red Door
, the last line evolved from one that fell flat to a sentence that
(I hope) makes readers think. Here is the original ending: 

I slid the tights off, reached for my
pants. I heard a thud against the door after it closed behind me. One of these
might have smashed against it: ashtray, white leather pump, belly-up fish. I
exited the hotel, adjudged to be free of her.


the above, "adjudged" feels forced and the ending completes the story without
taking the reader to a new place. I revised the sentence, developing a new last
line that attempts to have more impact than the original version did:

I slid the tights off, reached for my
pants. I heard a thud against the door after it closed behind me. One of these
might have smashed against it: ashtray, white leather pump, belly-up fish. I
exited the hotel as Eva shouted from a window above, "There's a place for
us...somewhere a place for us."

new closing sentence depicts Eva, who is dressed up as Natalie Wood, shouting
Maria's (played by Wood) famous words from West
Side Story
. As the reader learns in the story, Eva chases a fantasy, and as
a result she drives away her lover Steven; yet, even as he is leaving her,
she's too enthralled in her role-playing to break character. I wrote the last
line aiming to surprise readers and to give them something to wonder about
after they finish reading it. For example, they might think: what did Eva look
for in a relationship--a sense of excitement? Could it be fulfilled? Do I ever
do that in real life, setting myself up for disappoint or heartbreak?

Here's another example of when
I used an allusion to produce what I hope is a thought-provoking last sentence
from my flash story "Precession":

Hands trembling, Neil removed the
goggles. He felt unsteady, as if the earth had spun off its axis. Had he
succeeded in proving Hugh's theory? Wincing with pain, he looked down to see
that his ankle was starting to swell.

the story, Neil's deceased father Hugh is the inventor of the many-worlds
theory and created a way to access memories from parallel universes. Hugh
believed that for every event that happened, the universe splits so that an
alternate event would take place in a different dimension. He invented wearable
computer goggles to help Neil find him alive in parallel realities. However,
things go wrong when Neil watches his father die in universe after universe and
starts to see his shadow in the memories--as if by watching the other realities through
the gadget he becomes apart of them. The last line reflects this and explains
how virtual traveling affects Neil psychically. His swollen ankle references Oedipus,
who Neil mentions briefly in the beginning of the story. In Ancient Greek, Oedipus
means "
swollen foot,"[3]
and like Oedipus Neil kills his father in a parallel dimension after he watches
him suffer repeatedly. By the end of the story, Neil has to live with the memory
of what he's done, and his swollen ankle shows how real his father's invention
turns out to be psychically and psychologically. In "Precession," I wrote an
ending that prompts readers to wonder if technological advancements have repercussions.
Specifically they might ask: how does technology shape the psyche? Can Neil
detach from the overtly violent and emotional experience he had from the
virtual otherworld computer algorithm?

              Many of my ideas for flash come from
questions that don't have easy answers. While I'm still new to writing short
short stories, I would like to keep at it, refine my approach, and develop new
ways to inspire readers to think deeply about existential and timely themes. Last
lines are crucial to do this well, and using allusions are one way to craft final
sentences that "ring like a bell."

You, too, can be brave and incorporate
this approach in your flash fiction by referencing in your ending sentences art,
theater, literature, history, philosophy, current events, or other subjects that
make your readers think. Allusions will deliver impact, take readers to a new
place, and pack in more meaning than a neatly tied up conclusion could offer
readers. When done well, you may even surprise yourself at what you can
accomplish by adding allusions to your last lines.



M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. "Allusion" in A Glossary of Literary Terms,

Boston: Wadsworth
Cengage Learning, 2009.


David. "Stories in Your Pocket: How to Write Flash Fiction." The Guardian,

May 14, 2012. Accessed December 7, 2013.



Wikipedia, accessed December 7, 2013.

Author's Note


Tiffany Sumner is a flash fiction writer, aspiring novelist, and degree-candidate in Rosemont College's MFA in Creative Writing Program. Earlier this year, she relocated to Philadelphia by way of Brooklyn and is earning a living writing about shoes, mobile apps, education and taxes. Yes, taxes. She is a contributing fiction writer for Red Door Magazine and a pretty a-okay cook. Originally from Virginia, Tiffany lives in South Philly with her boyfriend and their two cats--Stitches and Madame Snugglewhiskers. Learn more about Tiffany on her blog Roja ChaCha.


[1] Gaffney, David, "Stories in Your Pocket:
How to Write Flash Fiction."

[2] Abrams and Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11.

[3] "Oedipus," Wikipedia.

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