As writers of
flash, we’ve got at the very most 1,000 words to captivate the reader and leave
a lasting impression. In this short
space, we need to create compelling characters, settings, and plot. One
technique I think is helpful in accomplishing this while keeping compression in
mind is defamiliarization.
Defamiliarization is taking something that is familiar and presenting it
in a way that is unfamiliar. Consider Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can
paintings. This installation created a
sensation that is still studied and copied more than fifty years later, and
it’s because Warhol took an object as familiar as a soup can and defamiliarized
it by presenting it in a way that was unfamiliar. So how do writers use defamiliarization in
their flash? Here I’ll show you a few
techniques that I’ve used that I hope have added more interest to my own
One thing that is
important in any fiction writing is setting.
A reader needs to be able to step into the world you have created and
feel fully immersed in it. With so few
words to work with, the writer of flash needs to do this as quickly as
possible. In my piece, “Moirai,” I wrote
the setting like this:
The room smelled
of chalk, sweat and pine. The early
morning light trickled through the high arched windows, the sounds of
awakening, the thunk of delivery trucks, the groan and hiss of the busses, the
clang of garbage haulers, followed in percussive staccato.
I attempted to defamiliarize a
ballet studio in the city by focusing on the sounds and smells rather than on
visual details since I think visual descriptors are more common. I think the onomatopoeia of thunk, hiss, and clang also adds
some interest. But maybe I should have
focused on details less common than delivery trucks, busses, and garbage
haulers. Here is that same paragraph
again, still focusing on sounds and smells rather than visual descriptors, but
with less familiar details:
The room smelled
of chalk, sweat and pine. Early morning
trickled in, Mr. Danvers belting “La Traviata” as he opened the barbershop
below, the whir of bike messengers slicing exhaust, pedestrians harrumphing en
masse to their destinations.
I think this revision keeps the
flavor of a room in an old building in the city, but it does it in six fewer
words and in a less familiar way.
When writing your
own settings, consider how you can make the everyday details new again. It could either be by describing a familiar
setting in an unfamiliar way, or by having familiar action occur in an
unfamiliar place. What if I had placed
that ballet studio, not in the city as is probably expected, but in an
abandoned ranch in the Midwest?
Another thing to
consider is your characters. Readers
want characters they can relate to, but that interest them because they are
unlike anyone they have encountered before.
In my story “Ultimatum,” I was looking for a way to retell the story of
Pygmalion. Most readers are familiar
with the “My Fair Lady” retelling, so I named the characters Henry and
Eliza–but in my version, Henry is a research scientist that specialized in
regeneration, and Eliza is a human/reptile hybrid that he created. I took the familiar names and gave them to
characters who are unfamiliar, and a familiar relationship strife to characters
the reader has never met (and likely never will).
While the desires
your characters have might be familiar, think of ways to have them react to
these desires in unfamiliar ways or give your characters traits that cause them
to interact with their world in unfamiliar ways.
One last thing I
think writers of flash fiction can do to defamiliarize their writing and create
interest is to use unfamiliar language. Here
is a passage from a first version of my story “For Better or For Worse”:
Jack threw the
last book that he held against the wall, and it disintegrated into dust. He went over to her desk and rifled through
the papers. He found her journal and
opened it to where the ribbon marked her last entry. She wrote, “Today I will retrieve Grace’s
body. Tonight I will perform the ritual
and my beautiful Grace will be back in my arms.” Jack dropped the journal as if the pages had
cut his fingers. He ran from the room,
taking the stairs two at a time, his heart beating a rat-a-tat against his
breastbone, as he forcibly suppressed the need to vomit.
The passage above is 106 words and
uses weak, familiar verbs like threw,
went, wrote and ran. The
revision below is half the length and uses stronger, less familiar verbs like scrawled, escaped, reverberated, whirled.
reeling against his wife’s desk. Journals,
scrawled with the hieroglyphs of a madwoman, toppled, firecrack-clapped to the
floor; grief, loss, yearning, reverberated; dust motes whirled a frantic
jitterbug in the air, the cloying sweetness of decay enveloping Jack as he
escaped the room, his heart beating a rat-a-tat against his breastbone.
This revision is more interesting
(I hope!) not only because of the stronger verbs, but also because the details
were presented in less familiar ways.
Condensing this passage also heightens the tension in a scene where
tension is crucial.
When writing your
own flash, remember to choose each word carefully as each word carries so much
more weight when writing such short fiction.
Use strong, unfamiliar verbs and details and carefully consider the
structure of your sentences. Cut out
anything that isn’t necessary to the story.
is an effective tool writers can use to add interest to their flash fiction
without sacrificing compression. If you
can find ways to craft your stories in ways readers have never seen before, I
can almost guarantee you more than fifteen minutes of attention. After all, Warhol did it with just a couple
of soup cans. Imagine what you can do.
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.