How to Sit: Banishing the static in Flash Fiction, by Tommy Dean

Reading Time: 8 minutes

If you want to write a flash where a character sits and ruminates, then there must be a reason for them to sit, for them to be lost in their own memories. There are time, even in flash, with it’s limited space, where characters can pause, can delve into thought and feelings, but without a balance between rumination and action, a story can feel static, can feel like it’s headed nowhere. There’s a fine line between exposition and context, and I love when a writer can balance these two story elements.

One of the reasons, I love Hananah Zaheer’s story, “Lovebird” is because of how deftly she uses mini-scenes of backstory. These scenes are presented to the reader as a kind of stream of consciousness thought, but each memory is crafted by Zaheer through specific and particular details remembered by this main character as she sits alone on her birthday. This easily could have been a familiar story, one with a sad character, without agency, but the objects, such as the lovebird and the break-up note from her husband stuck in her teaching copy of Sense and Sensibility, are unique to her character, unique to her story, so they create a tension, where in some stories we’d only have static acquiesce to the loneliness of a character aging alone. Our main character refuses to go gentle into that good night, to merely sit and think, and be troubled. So if you must have your main character sit and dwell on the past, find the a way, like Zaheer to make these thoughts like mini-scenes, so specific in concrete objects and sensory details that we experience these scenes, these little betrayals with them!

None of her children have shown up for her birthday and Soraya sits at the window, watching the empty driveway, upright in the walnut wood chair that her father had ordered from the most expensive retailer in Lahore for her wedding, what was it fifty years ago, and ignores the hard-boiled egg and the orange and the glass of pomegranate juice on the tray in front of her, same tray on which she had carried soup and water to her mother she can’t even remember how long ago, feeling the burn from the heater on her small feet resting on the marble floor, and reaches for the single lovebird in the cage beside her

This story starts off in a typical manner with a character sitting sadly, waiting, but Soraya’s character is revealed through the objects she has been given and kept through the years. She will not be revealed only through her thoughts, but by how these objects bring up her memories, which Zaheer paints in vivid, but condensed brushstrokes. Plus, there is this balancing this alchemy of the past and the present, each represented by the objects and specific details to make sure that we are not floating in this character’s thoughts, but are being driven forward into her past, a past that does have consequences for her current circumstances.

the silver coop with a blue bird her husband had given her on their twentieth anniversary with that sparkle in his eyes and a happy anniversary, darling even though it was the same year she had lost her mother and happy was the farthest thing from her mind but he had been feeling guilty, turned out, about his new, secret wife, and his affections had become louder and more elaborate until all three of her kids had started saying they wanted a love like their parents’ and wasn’t she so lucky and her heart had fluttered at the sight of the delicate bird feet trembling on the perch and she had believed she was lucky too, 

And here we get the title object, a gift from her husband, a way of revealing their relationship in this memory, and how Soraya had to deal with the irony of the gift, and her children’s naivete about their parent’s marriage, how objects of love don’t always mean commitment. Every time Zaheer introduces a new object we learn more about our main character, more about her past, and we start to care about her, and want her children to visit her for her birthday. Objects are the way we enter into the past, into the backstory, and soon the way we will see how she is surviving in her current story. There’s a special velocity created here too, by keeping all of these memories in one sentence, in refusing to use periods, paragraphs, or section breaks. This narrative refuses to let you dip out.

but the bird had died that December and soon after her father was gone and then her marriage followed when the letter from her husband’s new wife arrived which, even now, is pressed into an old copy of Sense and Sensibility on the bookshelf behind her, buried between her teaching notes, and which she had kept after all the deaths so every time she stood in front of the classroom of eager girls, the pages reminded her not to forgive her husband and to restrain the silly chirrups of teenage hearts by telling them everything died at its most beautiful, that they must believe only the words that slice the heart (truth was never meant to be kind) and which she glances at now,

Staying the past we are provided the context of her greatest loss, the loss of her marriage balanced against these familial deaths, the lesson she couldn’t teach her children, she bestows upon her female students, never losing that letter from her husband’s wife, using it as a cudgel to remind herself that nothing is safe, nothing is sacred. While some writers might endow their characters with a sense of forgiveness, a way of using the object from the past to remind the main character to let go of anger and hurt, Zaheer allows her character to hold onto her grudge, her anger and grief, to let it shape who this character is now in our present story.

seeking that little blue edge that sticks out from between the pages as she holds the bird’s neck gently between her knuckles and rubs her thumb against the red patch on its head nearly as soft as the hair on her daughters’ heads when they were little, before they had layered on hair color and rebellion and shaved and cut and changed entirely how they looked in an effort, she feels still, to rid themselves of her, and she had been left with her son who was the only one who had remained loyal—that sweet thing, sitting quietly by her bed day after day after her husband moved out—and who, though he comes to see her less and less, pays for her to live now and had wanted to give her his pocket money then thinking it was the bird dying that had made her cry and cry and wrap her blankets around her as if she was building herself a cocoon, and who is across the city somewhere with a woman he has come to love more;

Here, we get back to the present and she is holding a lovebird, the one that survived from her husband’s gift, possibly? And we are given this gentler memory of the bird reminding her of her daughter’s hair when thy were younger, but so quickly the memory turns to disappointment. I love how the character isn’t allowed to linger, so much as each thought leads to some indignity, some reason for her to be upset, as we see with her relationship with her son, who was the last one to leave her, but for another woman, how love has failed our main character throughout her life, and we wonder how this story will end, how we will feel something other than pity for her?

he was meant to sit in the other chair beside her today, looking out the window with her as she told him about all the dreams she had when she was a child, how she had wanted to train the birds to deliver letters when she was young, how she wished her mother had warned her about endings, how she had given up the habit of looking forward and abandoned her yearly walk to the kitchen to hang the Scenes of Northern Pakistan calendar the maid and the cook so seemed to like and could he find a new one for them,

I love that the son was supposed to attend him mother today, so that she could do more than think. He was meant to be her sounding board while she dug even deeper into her past, to speak to the dreams she had as a child, the ones that didn’t come true, this kind of er-past, a true past, even though it never came to fruition. That she is more than what has happened to her, that she is equal parts the dreams that didn’t come true, but she remembers desiring. But what to do with this bird she is holding? How do we complete this story, bring this narrative to a conclusion? Will she get up and leave? Will a guest arrive? None of the story so far points to these being likely or interesting possibilities. But the objects of her past and present need to collide in a way, and Zaheer brings them together for us.

slowly her knuckles squeeze the small neck between them and with her other hand she holds the wings flapping strong and getting stronger—she knows they will be the strongest right before the end—until the claws scratching at her lap start to fail and she tells herself this is just how life goes, Soraya, this is just how it is and stares out the window.  It is Tuesday, no Wednesday.  Perhaps even Thursday.  Tomorrow she will break off another small piece of gold from her wedding bracelets and ask the girl who brings her food to her to go to the market and buy another bird.

Flash often finds its ability to create the feeling of depth through specific metaphors that often spring up from objects or images provided early on in the story. A writer struggling with an ending might do well to look for an image that holds some kind of power, a stirring, and find a way to shift it, to manipulate it into another form or packaging, to give the reader a new way of thinking about this character they’ve been trying to understand. Soraya uses the bird as something she can control, can keep within her grasp, something, that though it fights her, Soraya’s will not be defeated. She has resigned herself to this violence, this aloneness, this way of living, lost to memory and her current consciousness. But she also refuses to quit. That each new lovebird has the possibility of changing something, of nudging away her anger, her betrayal.

So if you want to write flash with memories and thoughts, stay away from labeling the abstract feelings, and find the concrete specific details and the objects that will reveal your characters through their backstory, through their pasts. Let this past upswell into the present story, and find the objects that allow us to experience this life with the main character, for in these details we find the resonance of the past.


Start with or find a story you’ve written in the past, where a character is static, is sitting and thinking, and allow their memories to be presented through the details and objects that make that moment come alive for the character and the reader. Try to find the objects that have meaning to your character, show us this meaning, show us how these objects help the character remember these moments, show how an object from the past still has power in the present of the character’s life. How has that object and its power changed through the years? How can that object fully reveal your character in this moment?


Tommy Dean is the author of two flash fiction chapbooks, Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks, 2014) and Covenants (ELJ Editions, 2021), and a full flash collection, Hollows (Alternating Current Press, 2022). He lives in Indiana, where he currently is the Editor at Fractured Lit and Uncharted Magazine. A recipient of the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction, his writing can be found in Best Microfiction 2019, 2020, 2023, and Best Small Fiction 2019 and 2022. His work has been published in Monkeybicycle, Laurel Review, Moon City Review, Pithead Chapel, New Flash Fiction Review, and many other litmags. He has taught writing workshops for the Gotham Writers Workshop, The Writers Center, and The Writers Workshop. Find him at and on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.


We’re a very small team of volunteers who spend many hours working to build TSS and the short fiction and non-fiction community. If you enjoy the site, please help with a tip. Thank you.