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

Image patterns play a particularly strong role in supporting the plot of flash fiction. For example, as I drafted a flash piece about a germaphobic woman confronting a worker who has crapped on her lawn, the image of dirt, of waste, a brownness popped up here and there, like a symbol of a wasted land. The different meanings of words--such as waste in my story and its connection to consumption, exhaustion, loss, sickness, trash, excrement, and ruin--also help deepen the significance of the short piece. In the aforementioned story draft, the woman has wasted her life worrying about waste so that now her life is a kind of wasteland. As long as she holds on to it, she doesn't have to confront the meaninglessness and waste associated with her fear; however, if she lets it go, she's free of that fear but now burdened with the recognition of all that she has lost for what? For nothing. It all amounts to a load of crap. The meanings created by image patterns, repetitions, and single words all add a depth to the story and help the story achieve that supernatural wonder necessary to evoke that mythic quality of storytelling.
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Here's what the writer Douglas Glover said about image patterns in his essay "Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise" from The New Quarterly:

[Here's] how image patterning works: an image is something available to sensory apprehension, or an idea, as in Kundera, which can be inserted into a piece of writing in the form of a word or words. An image pattern is a pattern of words and/or meanings created by the repetition of an image. The image can be manipulated or "loaded" to extend the pattern by 1) adding a piece of significant history, 2) by association and/or juxtaposition, and 3) by ramifying or "splintering" and "tying-in." Splintering means splitting off some secondary image associated with the main or root image and repeating it as well. Tying-in means to write sentences in which you bring the root and the split-off image back together again. (Some authors get very good at this. I've sometimes brought three and even four patterns back together again in the same sentence in a novel.) Image patterning gives a story 1) a sense of "strangeness" which is against verisimilitude and is a factor in the so-called literariness of the piece, 2) an echo chamber effect (or internal memory--important for giving the reader a sense that there is a coherent world of the book and akin to sub-plotting in this), 3) a rhythm, 4) a root or web effect that promotes organic unity (the threads connecting the pattern in the text are like the roots of a tree holding the soil together). A boss image is a species or sub-set of repeating image in which a single over-arching image controls the meaning of the story. Symbols are simply images which are loaded. By loading, again, I mean the process by which a writer adds to and extends the meaning of the bare image. An image which is not loaded is incidental or mere description. But in great writing, there is very little that can be classed as mere description. Images, loading and repetition are basic principles in the generation and control of narrative material.

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So, let's look at image patterning at work in a draft. Here's the beginning two paragraphs of a short short I'd been trying to write FOREVER:

They stripped my father's bed, separated his clothes from his verses. For a while, he scratched Lowell's poems into his own tablet--the black and white composition notebooks of grammar school. The mattress bares blood, urine stains. I wanted to be here with--no that's a lie--so I came too late.

Pan, of shepherd and flocks, appeared to Frost on "naked pasture land." It's the sudden anxiety of loneliness that inspires Pan--who tore Echo to pieces and flung her over the world. I've read hundreds of my father's critical articles--his tearing into Frost, Lowell, Bishop, Sexton, Whitman, Eliot. He desperately wanted to discover, like Hawkings looking for the Theory of Everything, the one sentence that, once uncovered, would reveal the mind of the gods. No one gets this in the world. Certainly not someone immersed in so much verse.

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The verbs of the first paragraph--stripped, separated, scratched, bares--are echoed (ha, ha) in the image of the nymph Echo stripped, separated limb from limb and of the father tearing into the verses, which is in actuality a search for his own voice, so these verses are like echoes to him. The narrative to come--the son's visiting the father's classroom after the father's death--is also about separation, scratching out an existence, and the son's search for the father's echo in himself. It all relates. (Well, at least in my head it does).
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Remember writing essays in school, those lovely thesis statements, and the very strict demand that every sentence relate to that thesis sentence in some way. A sense of unity and completeness and tightness develops out of writing an essay in such a way. Building image patterns requires a similar discipline. Every image and every word relate both to one another and the narrative issues.
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Consider what turns the brain on when writing the short short: "The brain thrives on meaning, not random information." What makes things meaningful (from Ten Best Teaching Practices: How Brain Research, Learning Styles, and Standards Define Teaching Competencies):

  • putting information together to make a pattern, to understand relationships and connections
  • that which stimulates emotions
  • that which impacts the learners' personal life.

In other words, allowing readers to construct meaning--to solve the riddle of the patterns--engages readers in the meaning-making process, and it is within that transaction between text and reader that meaning is made. Usually writers who feel that they make the meaning exclusively--and thus resent the imposition of the reader into this process--resist the idea of the reader constructing the meaning of the text. Notice that the brain does not thrive on random information. The brain loves connections, that supernatural story-world, where everything relates to everything else.

For Further Reading:

Daphne Buter's "He Wrote Sixteen Pencils Empty"

Pamela Painter's "Ghost Story"

Objective Correlative (T.S. Eliot)

Motif (Infoplease)


From GO

pat­tern recog­ni­tion also involves con­text, where­as the con­text that makes sense for the writer may not make sense for the read­er con­sid­er­ing that each indi­vid­ual has a dif­fer­ent life and there­fore a dif­fer­ent­ly con­struct­ed world view… and what makes sense for one per­son may not make any sense at all for anoth­er, the build­ing of image con­nec­tions, load­ing up the words, or stretch­ing out the inter­con­nec­tion of images, is also a tech­nique for evok­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of a con­text, and in a flash can ren­der a sort of code by which to envi­sion the world of an ‘oth­er’, which gets even more inter­est­ing if one is set on devel­op­ing an homuncu­lus

From Randall Brown

That sense that con­nects image to image is, I agree GO, some­thing that often eludes me as a read­er.

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