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

Thursday

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
writ­ing.

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.

Jack stood,
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.

Defa­mil­iar­iza­tion
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.

  

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.

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