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Putting the Flash in Fiction

October 6th, 2013

Vestal ReviewWhat makes for a good flash fiction story?

The answer is elusive, even though we know the good stories when we read them. They’re the ones that grab our attention, hold our interest, and conclude with a punch. But there’s more to it than that. There always is.

Next week, I’ll be giving a presentation on flash fiction at the Pittsburgh Area Independent School Teachers Association (PAISTA) conference, held this year at Sewickley Academy, just north of Pittsburgh. I’m currently in the process of assembling my notes, rereading some classic stories, seeking out some new ones, and trying to distill what I think I know into a  presentation about short-short fiction.

I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

ShortestOne story I plan on referencing in the presentation is a 55-word masterpiece by Jeffery Whitmore titled “Bedtime Story.” It first appeared in The World’s Shortest Stories, and it still stands as one of the best examples of flash I’ve ever read. Here’s its first line:

“Careful, honey, it’s loaded,” he said, re-entering the bedroom.

It’s a perfect first sentence, and would-be flash-fiction writers can learn a lot from the way it uses just nine words to effortlessly introduce the story’s characters, setting, and conflict. Moreover, I love the way the sentence compels us to read on, bringing to mind the advice Anton Chekov gave to A. S. Gruzinsky: “One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

Flash 6.1 Front CoverIt’s also worth noting that the story relies primarily on concrete nouns and active verbs. It contains few modifiers and avoids details that don’t contribute to the reveal at the end of the story. Yet the ending surprises and satisfies in ways that make “Bedtime Story” a masterwork of economy and precision. If you haven’t read it, you really should. The book is available in paperback and ebook for well under $10.00 – worth the investment if you’re interested in writing the stuff.

I’ve also been reading some of the genre’s newest entries, stories published in the current issues of The Vestal Review (which bills itself as “the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”) and Flash Fiction Online. Both magazines pay professional rates, and their stories are just a few clicks away.  There’s also a print magazine titled Flash, published twice a year by the University of Chester. Highly recommended.

FFOBanner4While you’re perusing the latest stories, be sure to check out “His Brother’s Bite” by Gillian Daniels in the October issue of Flash Fiction Online. Here’s the opening sentence:

Maurice showed me his twin brother by lifting up his shirt and pointing to the teeth growing out of his stomach.

Once again, notice how the author introduces the characters right up front. Stories are about people, not weather or landscape. In longer works, you might be able to open with mood-evoking details or panoramic vistas. (James A. Michener got rich doing that, but he never wrote flash.)

FB-ImagineStill, you will find plenty of flash fiction that opens with landscape and weather. You’ll even find some stories that contain no characters at all. Fredric Brown’s “Imagine” comes to mind, but such works seems more like prose poems than stories (and few writers have the skill to pull it off as well as Brown).

I’ve also been going through my files, digging out some of my own flash fiction from 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories, 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares, 365 Scary Stories, and others. I need to select a couple to present at the conference.

I just hope they hold their own against the stories mentioned above.

Piano-LessonFinally, I’ll be concluding my afternoon at PAISTA with a presentation on the songs featured in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Hesitation Blues,” “Wining Boy,” and “Oh, Lord, I Want You to Help Me” are all referenced in the course of the play, and I’ll be performing them and talking about how they contribute to the work.

Look for a follow-up post sometime next week. After that, you can expect at least two or three entries devoted to my upcoming readings at the World Fantasy Convention and the University of Brighton.

Until then, scop on!

Image Credits:

The Vestal Review Issue 43, “The Eye Opener,” copyright © 2013; The World’s Shortest Stories, Running Press Books; Flash Vol. 6 No. 1., University of Chester; Flash Fiction Online banner,; “Imagine” by Frederic Brown, from The Best of Frederic Brown, Del Ray, 1977 (currently out of print), The Piano Lesson, Plume, 1990.