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


Thursday Flash Craft: Desire & Narrative Structure in Writing the Short Short

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared at FlashFiction.Net on 7/30/2009]

Narrative-based flash pieces tell a story. The basic structure of such a narrative might go something like this: (1) something creates a very strong desire in the character, a desire which creates the need for (2) some kind of action(s) to fulfill this desire, leading ultimately to (3) a resolution/revelation.

Let's look at each of these 3-part sections more closely.

I: The Inciting Incident

Usually something occurs to create and/or ratchet up desire. This event--called the separation by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces--forces the character (1) to act in a new way; (2) to confront essential issues; (3) to face challenges; and (4) to bring some resolution to the situation. The sooner this event occurs, the better. The first paragraph isn't a bad place to start.

The beginning must not only create desire in the character, but it should have a quality that arouses a desire in the reader (the desire, of course, to read on). One way to get a reader immediately interested is to begin the flash with the inciting incident, in the middle of things, right as life is becoming story-worthy and thus narratable.

Example in writing a draft: Jake pressed on the horn and blared through the stop sign. Two more blocks. Jonah's mouth in the rearview mirror, like a beached carp. Jake had read the ingredients for the water ice twice, asked three times if they ever used the ice cream scoop for the water ice. And still milk found its way to Jonah's blood, puffing him up, taking breaths, and Jake already heard the tight strain in Alice's voice as she repeated her crummy accusations over the cell phone. "You want him sick, Jake. That's the only explanation. Four times, now. All with you and no one else."

Remember that the initial event should have something about it that forces the character to confront the true nature of the world and/or the self and/or his desire and/or an essential truth and/or a pressing issue of our times or all times. In other words, I think stories work best when we get the sense that not ANY EVENT would suffice. There's something about this event, as if the gods specifically designed the event and sent it to this character to challenge the character in a profound, pressing way.

Questions to ask of the opening in terms of narrative structure and desire:

  1. Does it generate a desire in the character: Now this character wants what?
  2. Does it separate the character from the previous world, as seen by the character's sentiments, beliefs, understandings, attitudes, behaviors, perceptions, insights, and the like?
  3. Does the opening force action upon the character?
  4. Will the character be forced to confront his/her most essential fears and desires?
  5. In short, because of that incident creating separation, the character wants something. The more urgent the desire and the more life-changing the consequences, the higher the stakes. High stakes are good. You want a character who has gone "all-in."

    Example of thought processes of draft writing (continued from the previous example of a draft): So what does this inciting event--this fourth time his son has had a life-threatening reaction during the father's "watch"--force the father to confront? Perhaps the father must confront, finally, what he has always sensed: that deep down his wife does not believe in him and will leave him (with their son) if he cannot convince her that she is wrong. He wants to prove her wrong, will do anything to show her that he is not this man she thinks he is, that the sickness in the family does not lie within him.

    II: The Need for Action

    Now, the character has a pressing need for some kind of action(s) to fulfill this desire. Safe and comfortable in a world where we know the orders, patterns, and laws, we remain attached to our personal identities. Only by taking away that world--by separating the Self from the beliefs that define it--does the Self find itself in a position to be challenged. In simplest terms, here's where you throw obstacles at your character that deny the character the chance to have his/her desire satisfied.

    "Whenever intention is denied," Robert Tobias argues in 20 Master Plots, "the effect is tension" (19). For characters, the tasks asked of them in narratives should provide the greatest challenge imaginable. The writer must transform the world into one specifically designed both to thwart the character's intentions and to create a need for the very action the character seems most incapable of making. In simplest terms, the agoraphobe is forced to confront the outside; the mourning father, the image of his dead wife; Sarah Palin, a geography test. And so on.

    Example of thought processes of draft writing (continued): Now that we have the set-up for this father-making-son-sick story, the challenge is to come up with the action. What would you have this father do? What will be the result of this action? How will this action be both unexpected to the reader and challenging to the father's belief systems? What will this make both the father and reader confront? How deep and pressing an issue is this for the father and reader? The question here is clear: What will you have him do?

    In short, this middle section involves the thwarting of the protagonist's intentions. Each ordeal should require the protagonist to look deeper for the power to overcome these obstacles. Each task asks the protagonist if he can destroy the person he was and become the person he is to be. Can the ego put itself to death? Sacrifice--the decision of the ego to cut itself off for the betterment of the Self, the choice of the protagonist to venture forth beyond what is known for the recovery of a sacred revelation--lies at the heart of this section.

    Example of thought processes of draft writing (continued): So you have the father act. His action fails at first, but the father learns something with each subsequent action. In flash, you need to decide if you'll focus on the penultimate action or a number of actions, each one leading to a different understanding, building to that final one.

    The flash could focus on the father's setting up a sting operation to catch the truth of who or what is making his son sick? He could set up a camera. He could take the son somewhere and interrogate him mercilessly. He could try to trick the son into revealing what he knows. He could suspect his wife and create a plan to catch her in the act.

    Let's say he places a glass of milk next to his son's lunch and hides in the pantry. His wife discovers him hunkered there, spying. Does she join him? Does she get angry? What would (1) surprise a reader and (2) force him deeper into the issue? Let's say she joins him, and they watch as the son reaches for the milk to drink it himself. He rushes out; she's paralyzed. Why would their son do such a thing? What sickness lies in their parenting that would make him resort to making himself sick?

    And then more questions arise. Should the flash begin with the father setting up the milk, hiding in the closet? Is that more interesting? Is that first part needed? Is the issue different than what I previously thought? Does this go to some aspect of parenting? Hmmm. Maybe it's better to just write it and think less?

    [Flash has such potential--to go against expectation, to find an alternative to the drawn-out scene of melodrama, to discover in brevity a blinding, bright truth. Its power lies in its ability to burst into a life at the most important, profound time. When does the profundity visit this family? I'm thinking it's in that closet, in the son's reach for the milk, in the subsequent exploration of what that reach means, where such a desire originates.]

    III: Revelation

    The story builds to a resolution and/or revelation. The ultimate goal of the character's journey is the gaining of a higher knowledge that remained, before, beyond the character's grasp. Each story requires a character to see something deeper within himself and/or the world, some embedded truth that must be brought into the light.

    The best endings linger. They haunt. They end the story as it should be ended, as if each word led us to this inevitable moment, yet they surprise us in some way. I rarely know how a story will end. I think my discovering the story and its path as I write helps make the ending work. Put yourself in the character's place, forced to make decisions, never certain about where that choice will lead.

    Example of thought processes during draft writing (continued): So, out of the closet, the father, Jake, bursts and knocks the glass away. Jake figures out the son has been making himself sick because it's the way the son can see the love his father has for him, a love the father keeps hidden deep within himself. Why? What is the father afraid of? These questions Jake is forced to confront through the subsequent actions. Is the mother even needed in this story? Maybe not. Maybe it's about Jake and his son.

    And how to end this story. I have this sentence: His son, when no one was looking, would risk a self-induced suffocation to find his father's love--and Jake felt that same desperation in his own stilted breaths. He reached for his son the way his son reached for the milk, waiting for his breath to be stolen away.

    Narrative and the corresponding structure leads one to an important question: Why this way? If indeed this is the One Way to enact the ritual of storytelling for the gods, what does its three-part structure reveal about those gods? About the purpose of stories? About our own humanity? Perhaps the gods act as metaphors for our own inner forces, those desires and powers whose essence and origin always remain beyond our grasp. How does one attempt to explain the unexplainable? To know what cannot be known? To see completely what can only be glimpsed?

    What I hope you might take from this Thursday Flash Craft entry is the following:

    1. There is a basic narrative structure that can be learned.
    2. There are specific questions a writer can ask at any time to figure out both where to go next and what to revise.
    3. A writer should be conscious of the desire of both the character(s) and the reader(s) in choosing what happens.
    4. Such a structure focuses on what Karen Armstrong in her A Short History of Myth refers to as "interior crises" (11). Such stories have an important purpose for us readers: to "give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life"; to force us to "change our minds and hearts"; to give "us new hope; to compel "us to live more fully"; to "transform us."

    IV: An Example

    Let's look at a flash piece that's got it going on--Brady Udall's "The Wig."

    Why is the story taking place? Why is this moment narratable? Why this moment and not some other? The dramatic imperative--the reason for this story being told now--arrives in the form of a wig entering the morning/mourning of a father and son dealing with the recent death of the mom. The single most powerful desire for someone who has lost a loved one is for to have that person back. And that's what this father gets. There she is--sitting in the chair with her "sleep-mussled hair." Here's the event that demands an action, the "irritation" that turns quiescence into narration. The desire for the reader is to figure out why the son/wig troubles him so. And then, when we get it, we wonder what will he do? The irritation forces a confrontation that is both outside--he must deal with his son and his wig--and inside, the feelings he has about his wife's death. The wig in the garbage--where dead things are found--keeps its deathly smell, giving the ending its complexity. She's there and not there in the son.

    V: Summary

    And so it goes--the unstable incident + character's desire leads to a confrontation with inside/outside implications and the ensuing CONFLICT leads to a resolution of some sorts. The dramatic imperative ensures a high-stakes story with a hard-earned resolution at the end. Simple. Yeah, right.

    For Further Reading

    Other flashes to consider (if you so desire). Try to figure out the narrative structure, the surface, bare-bones progression from here to there, and the deeper, more complex exploration of pressing issues.

    "Outer Space" by Tom Saunders

    "Morning News" by Jerome Stern

    "Angel" by Mary Miller
    * be forewarned: strong sexual content

    "The Way It Is Scripted, The Way It Goes" by Rusty Barnes
    * be forewarned: strong and graphic adult content

    Flash Fiction Symbol

    For further reading, check out FlashFiction.Net's suggested readings of flash fiction and prose poetry collections, anthologies, and craft books, by clicking here.

    Subscribe to FlashFiction.Net by Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *