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:
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.
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
· 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:
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.
Susan 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.