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

Tuesday

Read­ing flash fic­tion, for me, is like find­ing a
Polaroid lying on the side­walk.  It’s an
unex­pect­ed snap­shot of some­one else’s life. The more visu­al­ly descrip­tive a
piece of flash is, the more I am able to enter the world and expe­ri­ence what
the char­ac­ters are expe­ri­enc­ing. As a fledg­ling writer of flash, I want to
learn how to cre­ate these snap­shots myself, and Natalia Rachel Singer’s “Hon­ey­comb” has taught me a lot about how
to do that in a very com­pressed way. 
Here is Singer’s flash:


Hon­ey­comb

Mrs. Stick stood breath­less in her kitchen
stir­ring rutaba­gas and pigs’ knuck­les into a heavy stew. She was expect­ing Mr.
Mann, who had a pro­duce stand in the next dis­trict where every day a gang of
quar­rel­ing farm­ers came to weigh their squash and sug­ar beets on the dusty
scale in his pick­up.  Mr. Mann was lean
and oily, with black bris­tles of hair that could paint her bel­ly hon­ey yel­low
in flat wide strokes.  She want­ed him to
want her but she knew he liked his women meati­er, with thick toe­nails that
could click against his like cas­tanets. Mrs. Stick hummed the score from
Okla­homa and wait­ed, feel­ing desire part her like a comb.

When the stew was ready, she skimmed off the
scum and tossed it onto her mulch pile beneath the only liv­ing elm tree in the
coun­ty, two paces from her baby’s grave. She thought of those eye­lids less
yield­ing than a doll’s, the unbear­able silence, felt the old hol­low ache as
wind rushed up her ash-col­ored skirt. When she opened her eyes again there he
was, as real as grain, rid­ing across val­ley, the dust flut­ter­ing behind like a
cloud of work­er bees. His truck kalumphed; there were mounds of squash pound­ing
up and down just for her.

How much does a baby weigh?” he’d ask her when
she exclaimed how big they were, how per­fect­ly whole.  After their meal they’d walk to the riv­er
while the last of the sun spit hon­ey, their clasped fin­gers short­en­ing the
stretch of emp­ty fields.

 

And
here is what I’ve learned:

·      Char­ac­ter names.  One of the aims of flash is
cre­ate a ful­ly-fleshed sto­ry in as lit­tle space as pos­si­ble.  There’s not a lot of room to intro­duce the
char­ac­ters.  Singer suc­cess­ful­ly han­dles
this by giv­ing her char­ac­ters descrip­tive names.  The read­er can imag­ine that Mrs. Stick is
tall, thin, per­haps a bit hard­ened. 
Des­ig­nat­ing her as a Mrs. adds anoth­er dimen­sion to the sto­ry.  Is she a wid­ow? Divorced? Mr. Mann, I
imag­ine, is tall, strong, vir­ile, and capa­ble. With a cleft in his chin.  Insert what­ev­er descrip­tion you want here,
but I think Singer is aim­ing for a uni­ver­sal arche­type.


·      Strong verbs, adverbs, and adjec­tives.  Well, duh, right?  Except some­times I think new writ­ers can get
caught up in the plot and for­get how impor­tant the details can be. Take
“quar­rel­ing farm­ers.” That one word,
quar­rel­ing,
cre­ates a spe­cif­ic visu­al of what hap­pens every day when the farm­ers come to
weigh their squash.  “Expect­ing Mr. Mann”
is mean­ing­ful on many lev­els:  not only
can you imag­ine that she is wait­ing with antic­i­pa­tion (an image sup­port­ed by
the use of
breath­less in the line
above), but it is fore­shad­ow­ing of the fer­til­i­ty aspect that comes lat­er in the
sto­ry.  And then there’s the bril­liant­ly
beau­ti­ful lines, such as 
this one: “Mr. Mann was lean and oily, with black bris­tles of hair
that could paint her bel­ly hon­ey yel­low in flat wide strokes.”  Not only do you have an even more con­crete
image of Mr. Mann him­self, but you also have a pret­ty good idea of what Mrs.
Stick visu­al­izes when she thinks about how much she wants him to want her. 


·      Sim­i­les and metaphors.  For exam­ple, With thick toe­nails that could click
against his like cas­tanets.”  This phrase
isn’t just about toe­nails, it’s also about the poten­tial inti­ma­cy between Mr.
Mann and Mrs. Stick. You have to be pret­ty close with some­one to have your
toe­nails click togeth­er like cas­tanets. 
With those two words, like
cas­tanets
, the read­er can imag­ine the type of inti­ma­cy Mr. Mann is look­ing
for.  Lat­er, Singer describes Mr. Mann
“as real as grain.”  Here the read­er
might visu­al­ize vast fields of grain, an ancient sta­ple, now almost an icon­ic
sym­bol of the Amer­i­can Mid­west. From
this, the read­er learns that Mrs. Stick sees him as a con­stant, a force of
sta­bil­i­ty in her life.  Four words
suc­cess­ful­ly sum up a sig­nif­i­cant theme of the sto­ry.


·      Defa­mil­iar­ized details.  Besides adding inter­est to a
sto­ry, I think defa­mil­iar­ized details can slow read­ers down, almost forc­ing
them to linger for a bit over some­thing that might oth­er­wise be passed by
with­out a sin­gle thought. For exam­ple, “Mrs. Stick stood breath­less in her
kitchen stir­ring rutaba­gas and pigs’ knuck­les into a heavy stew.”  Had that read “Mrs. Stick stood in her
kitchen stir­ring stew,” the read­er would have most like­ly sped past it with­out
pon­der­ing what the stew could rep­re­sent. 
But the author chose to describe that stew with rutaba­gas and pigs’
knuck­les.  I think I can safe­ly say that
most peo­ple do not make rutaba­ga and pigs’ knuck­le stew–most peo­ple prob­a­bly
don’t even know what a rutaba­ga is. So
those details stop the read­er and the read­er starts to visu­al­ize what that might
look like.  From there, the read­er might
gain some insight into her cul­ture, her socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus, or her geo­graph­ic
loca­tion. 


·      Ono­matopoeia.  “His truck kalumphed.”  Yes, this detail is more aur­al than visu­al,
but imag­in­ing the sound leads the read­er to imag­in­ing the truck, and imag­in­ing
what the truck looks like leads the read­er to infor­ma­tion about all sorts of
things, includ­ing pos­si­bly Mr. Mann’s char­ac­ter or socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus.  One word, lots and lots of infor­ma­tion that
takes the read­er by the hand and leads him/her into the world of the sto­ry.


I decid­ed to see if how I could apply these
tech­niques to my own writ­ing.  Here is a
short piece of my own:


Sar­gent
Snow strode across the slick wood­en floor, the heels of his licorice black
shoes rat-a-tat­ting like machine gun fire. 
The boys cow­ered along the walls of the cor­ri­dor, their faces hid­den
from the icy glare of the commander’s one pale blue eye. Each one imag­ined feel­ing
the Sargent’s gelid fin­gers graze against his neck, grasp­ing him by the col­lar,
yank­ing him into the room from which no one ever returned.  Only Jack stood, shoul­der casu­al­ly pressed
against the fad­ed insti­tu­tion­al green, spark­ing a brass Zip­po on the seam of
his fad­ed blue jeans. 


In short, I think visu­al details, or details
that encour­age the read­er towards imag­in­ing visu­al details, can fur­ther immerse
your read­er into the world that you’ve cre­at­ed. 
When writ­ing your own flash fic­tion, chose details that can be used to
pro­vide back sto­ry or insights into your char­ac­ters’ thoughts or emo­tions.  A few care­ful­ly cho­sen words can pro­vide the
com­pres­sion you are look­ing for with­out sac­ri­fic­ing any part of the sto­ry you
want to share. 

 
Author’s Note

SusanRuhl.jpgSusan E. Ruhl is an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing can­di­date at Rose­mont Col­lege. She received her B.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing and Eng­lish from South­ern New Hamp­shire Uni­ver­si­ty and won the 2011 Amoskeag lit­er­ary jour­nal poet­ry con­test. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion. She lives in Lan­cast­er, PA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *