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


Another Flash Writer in a Boring Pennsylvania Suburb

by Rachel Kol­man

In a genre that empha­sizes word count, close read­ing flash fic­tion can be a won­der­ful teacher. Inten­tion­al­ly slow­ing down one’s eye to con­sid­er care­ful­ly each word and phrase makes us even more aware of how we can achieve the desired effect in our own work. And then, of course, all of these beau­ti­ful words need to add up to some­thing – mean some­thing. In “Anoth­er Night In a Fuck­ing Bor­ing Penn­syl­va­nia Sub­urb,” Kevin Richard White turns less than 300 words into a state­ment about sub­ur­ban weari­ness, Amer­i­can iden­ti­ties, and prej­u­dice through pre­cise word choice and a humor­ous tone. His sto­ry mer­its a clos­er look, and maybe I, the flash writer, can learn how to use these strate­gies in my own work. 

The first two sen­tences of this piece do a lot of heavy lift­ing to estab­lish the set­ting and con­flict. “I’m in my local Chi­nese place” tells me how com­mon, rou­tine, and mun­dane this expe­ri­ence is. The “ten year old” reveals a lot about the own­ers, and “run­ning reg­is­ter” is just a real­ly crisp, active, and allit­er­a­tive phrase (rather than “is sit­ting behind the reg­is­ter”). The sec­ond sentence—“A drunk guy is ask­ing for more duck sauce”—introduces the con­flict of the sto­ry. The sit­u­a­tion is made tense through the “is ask­ing” form of the verb; the action is hap­pen­ing as we enter the sto­ry, and we are watch­ing along like our nar­ra­tor.

Ah yes, our nar­ra­tor. We are intro­duced to him in the third sen­tence: “I’m three vod­kas in myself.” The narrator’s either 1) drink­ing three vod­kas at the restau­rant or 2) show­ing up drunk on three vod­kas rein­forces what the title sug­gests: this is just anoth­er night to get through, to numb with some vod­ka and pep­per steak. It pro­vides some back­sto­ry and con­text. Also, it shows some com­mon­al­i­ty between the nar­ra­tor and our antag­o­nist. In the sub­urbs, every­one drinks to make it through. 

In the next para­graph, we see the scene unfold with spe­cif­ic, con­crete details: the drunk guy’s Stet­son hat, the crispy noo­dles, the “hard blur of hair and grease.” This last detail is exquis­ite here, as there’s some­thing fresh about a blur being described as “hard.” To me, it rein­forces the drunk­en­ness of the nar­ra­tor. I like this strat­e­gy for flash: I can describe some­thing as “a del­i­cate punch” or “a delib­er­ate slip” as a way to sur­prise the read­er with a fresh, almost oppos­ing descrip­tion. It sug­gests con­flict, per­haps an inter­nal one. 

At the end of this para­graph, the nar­ra­tor leans heavy into a stereo­type of the drunk guy, a tech­nique which starts to reveal some of the heart of this sto­ry: “I think he’s going to las­so me or ask me to come over and pol­ish off a bag of pork rinds.” The words “las­so” and “pork rinds” are fun­ny, and often, humor­ous writ­ing is allowed to get away with stereo­type in ser­vice to a larg­er social com­men­tary. It also sets up the stereo­type the drunk guy will express in the next line as he looks over at the nar­ra­tor: “I bet you have duck sauce.” On a lazy night in the sub­urbs, the judg­ments are just as lazy. The con­flict deep­ens. In response, the nar­ra­tor toys with him, too apa­thet­ic to care – “and how!” This apa­thy is rein­forced at the end of the next para­graph, after the nar­ra­tor won­ders briefly if the drunk guy ordered any­thing, and then thinks, “I guess it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter.” There will always be drunk guys in Stet­son hats want­i­ng a hand­out that they feel they’re owed, push­ing racist stereo­types onto those around them. 

This is also when the sto­ry starts includ­ing a bit more inter­nal thought from the nar­ra­tor. It seems as the con­flict deep­ens, so does the thought­ful­ness of the nar­ra­tor. (I like this as a writ­ing strat­e­gy – exter­nal con­flict lead­ing to inter­nal con­flict.) “I’m not sure what his deal was,” the nar­ra­tor con­sid­ers. Only for a moment, and then, lazi­ly and apa­thet­i­cal­ly, relies on a joke, stereo­type answer: “Maybe his TNT sub­scrip­tion got can­celed and he need­ed some­one to fuck with.” Though the nar­ra­tor seems to brush it aside with humor, it’s enough of a dis­tur­bance from mun­dan­i­ty that the he feels like he should say some­thing to the Chi­nese fam­i­ly. After all, this is his place, so maybe he wants to apol­o­gize for the racist jerk who inter­rupt­ed their night. Maybe he wants to final­ly do some­thing. But the fam­i­ly is gone, like­ly off in the back prepar­ing food, the drunk guy for­got­ten. There will be anoth­er one tomor­row. This feel­ing is rein­forced in the final line “I’m stuck…with nowhere else to go.” And now, apa­thy is not just a symp­tom of the sub­urbs, but a cop­ing mech­a­nism: apa­thy allows the nar­ra­tor to sur­vive this town. This qui­et inclu­sion of a deep con­flict is very fit­ting for a sto­ry not incred­i­bly heavy with con­flict or action. I love this qui­et inclu­sion as a writ­ing strat­e­gy. Ques­tion­ing the uni­verse through the tini­est detail is what flash is about.

The one odd craft thing to note about this piece is how halfway through, White switch­es from present tense to past. It hap­pens with the line, “I watched him from the win­dow.” This seems like an inten­tion­al switch, and I can only sur­mise that since the drunk guy has left the restau­rant, the imme­di­a­cy of the scene is now gone. I’m not sure that this is a strat­e­gy I would bor­row, but it is inter­est­ing­ly used here to deflate the con­flict, and I’m always a fan of writ­ers who break con­ven­tion­al writ­ing rules and get away with it. 

These devices are all incred­i­bly pow­er­ful for the flash writer. To be able to move through a sim­ple scene with clear, inter­est­ing word choic­es; to use action to reveal the con­flict, set­ting, com­pli­ca­tions, and desire; to use stereo­type to intro­duce humor and make a larg­er social com­men­tary; to get to the heart of a larg­er con­flict; to get the read­er think­ing after the sto­ry is over – all of these I can use to cre­ate one heck of a flash sto­ry. And so can you.

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