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

Thursday

What Writers Can Learn From Claudia Smith Chen’s “Window”

Below is Claudia
Smith Chen's
flash
fiction story "Window," from her chapbook The
Sky Is A Well And Other Stories,
followed
by a brief discussion:

Jenny looks out her window at the
scorched grass. Rains came last night and battered blades down. Fall is almost
here, you can see it because the azalea bush is stirring in the breeze. You can
see it because the kids are out on the asphalt, kicking a milk carton around.
Last week would have been too hot for playing in the street. Brandy, the
littlest but not the youngest, kicks the carton against Mr. Collin's gun-metal
SUV. Brandy's sister Tonya runs after, skids, skins her knee. Jenny is outside
with band-aids and Mercurochrome in less than five minutes.

            They sit on the stoop with her,
watching the blood drip. Brandy pats Tonya's knee. Her hands are sticky with
blue ice pop juice.

            Tonya looks at Jenny's flat belly.
What happened? She asks, did your baby die?

            Shut up, Tonya, Brandy says. You
aren't supposed to say.[1]

 

As a writer, I'm drawn to flash fiction
and short-short stories that pack a raw, emotionally charged punch. In this
piece, I am in awe of how Chen utilizes descriptive details, action, and movement--plus
other literary devices--to produce a powerful, complete story in less than 150
words. I discuss the techniques I admire below:

Multiple
meanings:
"Window," the
story's title, has several meanings. First, the narrator describes what Jenny sees
through the window. She watches the neighborhood kids at play, observes the
summer-to-fall season change, and provides delightful details about her
neighborhood. Second, the window implies time. At the end of the text, the
reader learns that Jenny has lost a baby. Thus, her window of being pregnant
has closed. Time references the change in seasons from summer to fall, too. For
example, "fall is almost here, you can see it because the azalea bush is
stirring in the breeze." What's more, Brandy's hands are "sticky with blue ice
pop juice," indicating the weather is still warm enough for the kids to eat
popsicles, but the weather last week "would have been too hot for playing in
the street." Chen uses the season change to reflect Jenny's melancholy mood, mirroring
the cooling of the summer months. She describes the "scorched grass" and rains
that "battered the blades down" as she gives readers a glimpse into Jenny's
inner psyche--one saddened by the loss of her baby.

Strong
verbs:
Nothing will bore
readers more than sentence after sentence strung together with "meh" verbs,
particularly conjugated forms of "to be." Chen does nothing to fatigue her
readers in "Window." Instead, she excites and wakes them up with verbs such as "skids,"
"skins," "battered," "stirring," and "kicking."  

Sounds:
Chen makes great use of
sound in "Window," relying on the repeated "s" sound often in words and phrases
such as "scorched grass," "the azalea bush is stirring in the breeze," and "the
kids are out on the asphalt."

An
unexpected ending:
"Window"
is Jenny's story and the reader sees the world through her eyes. In the middle,
they see that she is a caring person since she rushes to help her neighbor's
kid Tonya after she skins her knee. But nothing prepares the reader for what they
learn about Jenny at the end, when Tonya asks Jenny "What happened?" and "Did
your baby die?" The ending packs a "wow" factor, giving the story depth it
would not have achieved otherwise. Once the reader learns that Jenny's baby has
died, the story takes on a new tone and meaning. Suddenly, the end of summer isn't
just a change of seasons or weather. Suddenly, the end of summer is the
movement from one emotion of elation a pregnant woman might experience to
another of devastation or depression since she is unable to biologically keep her
baby. Now, Jenny isn't just a nice woman helping out the neighbor's kid. Instead,
she is a has-been pregnant woman who rushes to care for a hurt child. What if my child was injured? Jenny might
think as she arrives outside with "band-aids and Mercurochrome in less than
five minutes." The ending rewards, enhances, and adds complexity to the story,
completing it.

After reading and identifying the above
literary techniques in "Window," I was inspired to write something similar in a
flash fiction story "Purge." Here it is:

Purge

My boss Alfred, a diabetic, has a lazy
eye he can't see me with if I stand too close. The receptionist delivers him a
cantankerous cherry almond muffin and watered down coffee. On Mondays, Alfred
buys a carton of whole milk. Nobody likes him, you can tell because every other
Wednesday, the receptionist cleans the fridge, purges his milk to get a rise.
You can tell because Alfred's boss, Lauren, the chief executive officer, comes
by his desk, checks in on him.

Somehow, Alfred always loses his milk.
Someone uses up the last drop, empties the carton, places it in the fridge. He
sends a company-wide email that reads, milk carton empty: week six!!!!!! Lauren
tells him to stop it with all this crying about milk. His face reddens.

How is Alfred treating you? Lauren asks, are
you happy? I say, I guess. But I get coffee. Empty the last drop of milk. Place
the carton in the fridge.           

 

Writers may also want to try using
multiple meanings, strong verbs, repetitious sounds, and unexpected endings to
deepen a story. Such techniques offer ways to pack meaning, action, and depth into
compact stories. I have attempted to utilize the literary devices in my story,
"Purge," and I hope you, too, can accomplish this in your writing.

Bibliography

 

Smith, Claudia,
"Window," in The Sky Is A Well And Other
Stories.
Brookline: Rose Metal Press, 2007.


Author's Note

Sumner.jpg

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] Smith, Claudia, "Window," 25.

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