Flash fiction is an exercise in brevity: this is nothing new. But this doesn’t mean that flash fiction has to limit its temporal reach to a short span of time. Flash fiction can stretch far beyond the few pages (or the fraction of a page) it occupies. It can encompass hours, days, months, a lifetime or even more, as we’ll see in the examples listed below. They illustrate the various techniques that can be employed to make time dilate in flash fiction — or rather contract to a few dozens or hundred words. It is no small feat, and the result of this kind of compression can have a staggering effect on the reader.
There’s also another aspect of time in flash fiction to consider: because of the low word count, there are only so many words than can be used in order to establish a timeline. It’s an art in itself choosing those very words that tell us more about the character’s situation, about his or her personality, while giving us a feel of the atmosphere of the era (this is especially important in the case of historical fiction), or just placing us in time. It’s the ability to choose from all the spectrum of the character’s activities and surroundings: the ones that tell us most about the character’s set of circumstances. Stripping an entire lifetime down to a few details — this is a skill which entire books could be written about.
In this essay, I only aim to showcase some of the ways time can be used in flash fiction, using the accustomed examples that are free to read on the Internet. Think of this like a door, setting your imagination free, allowing you to be creative with the use of time in your own work.
Living in the Moment
One of the fundamental forms of expressing time in fiction is ‘real time.’ The scene is one of the basic elements of long and short fiction, and there’s nothing more ‘real time’ than a scene played in dialogue, with or without ‘stage directions.’ The action plays minute by minute, following the sequence of the scene.
Because flash fiction is so short, the scene chosen is often definitional to a character’s life or development. But a single scene doesn’t make a successful flash fiction. Works of fiction are usually composed from a chain of scenes depicting a series of events (this also applies to some pieces of flash fiction). But when a flash fiction is a single scene, this certain scene is one where a more or less dramatic event creates a shift within the main character’s conscience. It’s a scene that may define an entire lifetime. And sometimes, a single detail from the character’s past can round the scene, and highlight its true importance for the protagonist. This is the case of the complex ‘Everything’s Shitty at Price King’ by Kathy Fish.
An employee at Price King is assaulted in the shop close to closing time. The attacker is ‘holding a gun — and a baby.’
As the scene unwraps, and the employee tries to defuse the situation, it becomes clear that for our character, the safety of the baby is in the midpoint. And then, Kathy Fish only needs two sentences to reveal to us the true stakes of this story – read here.
This is a wonderful example how a single scene can be defining for a character’s life, for his or her history, for the choices this characters makes, and for who he/she is as a person.
Jacqueline Doyle uses a moment-by-moment deconstruction of a conversation between a couple, without further comments, to highlight a struggle for power. The use of subtext is brilliant here, especially since the piece is so short, only 100 words long. Note how the author doesn’t use ‘stage directions’ at all — there isn’t really a third party narrator outside of the tags ‘he said’ and ‘she said.’ An all-dialogue story is harder to pull off, but it is much more rewarding in terms of underlining the real-time dynamics between the protagonists. Read it here.
A Flash For A Lifetime — and Beyond
A flash fiction can also encompass an entire lifetime. The most obvious means of compression are narration and summary. These are devices also used in longer pieces of fiction, to bridge a certain amount of time lapsed between scenes, for instance. But there are also other ways to squeeze a lifetime onto a single page.
In ‘The Only Things I Didn’t Love About My Wife:’, Martin Hansen-Verma uses a list. It’s made up of the narrator’s pet peeves concerning his wife. They range from peculiarities, like
the leftovers she neither threw out nor ate
to particulars that tell the story of this couple
the long-distance calls to a stranger in Lancaster; the affair (the whole thing)(.)
It’s a searing, heartbreaking story, and it’s told in so many tiny details that have the effect of puzzle pieces coming together. The story isn’t as much on the page, as it is in the reader’s mind and in the white space between the naked facts. This flash fiction is a wonderful example of how white space can be effectively used. Read it here.
Aaron Teel’s ‘Youth in Orbit’ is a whimsical story about children who build a spaceship — except that by the time they finish, they’re not children anymore. It’s amazing how much time and family dynamics fit into 100 words. The key ingredient to this story is playfulness, which can be an important element in toying with time – read it here.
Another aspect worth discussing when speaking about compressed time is one I have hinted at in the opening. It refers mostly to historical fiction: using the most relevant details that tells us about the protagonists’ life, actions, and development, and as well as about the era this character lived in. In ‘When the Rubber Hits the Road,’ (second place in the Bath Flash Fiction Award February 2018), Lee Nash weaves an enticing story that stretches over centuries, from the stubborn entrepreneur who lived during the times of Queen Victoria, to man who ‘walks his infested Wellington boots over the ripe plantations’ in the present day. The focus of the story is on rubber, and the author skilfully uses a handful of details to present us with two antithetic protagonists: the pioneer who in spite of all that ‘conspired against him’ catalysed the creation of the rubber plantations in Asia, and ‘the infamous bio-warrior.’ Observe how the era in which both characters are indicated, and how the author manages the passage of time between them – read it here.
Time in flash fiction is flexible — we’ve just seen that. But time can also be pinned to one or more specific moments, clearly indicated within the piece. A flash fiction’s structure can be derived from its timeline, which serves as a narrative device.
Such an example is Eileen Merriman’s ‘Prismatic.’ The timeline is placed within the piece — it’s a fragmented flash fiction, where each fragment begins by telling us the protagonists’s age. It stretches from 2 to 16. Since the piece is told in first person, the voice is calibrated to reflect this specific age. For instance:
This goes on to reveal itself as a shattering story about wrongdoing, trauma and revenge. The broken structure works wonderfully within this flash fiction, and so does the use of age as a ‘header’ for each paragraph. It’s a brilliant example of how it’s enough to select a few facts that can be compressed into a few sentences to summarise a character’s development over years. Read it here.
A similar structure is used by Alison Woodhouse in ‘Life in a Teacup,’ but using a third person narrator, and cleverly threading teacups and birthdays throughout – read it here.
But landmarks don’t have to present themselves only in terms of years. We can speak of days, like in Claire Polders’ ‘Woman of the Week.’ The author shows us how fully a character can be drawn by showing us her actions every day, from Monday to Sunday, and then again Monday.We witness the highs and lows in this woman’s life — and we are filled with hope, and compassion, as well as with a sense of inescapability from one’s own self:
On Monday, under the weight of routine, she’s nothing but sloppy and dull-eyed(.)
Time can be decisively marked in flash fiction, as we’ve seen in the category above. But it can also be suggested through more subtle means. Here, the author’s imagination is challenged to find effective ways to show us how time flies, instead of telling this in a straightforward manner.
In Santian Vataj’s ‘Names,’ the turning points in a relationship (and the passing of time) are marked by the names a couple call each other – read it here.
In ‘Opposite of a Girl,’ Stephanie Hutton uses metaphors of growth and transformation to mark the passage of time in this flash fiction about the coming of age. A fine story is crafted out of delicate images, and the turns of phrase veer into the poetic:
It started with buds. I plucked them out and threw them on the compost. But in that early morning silence, I ran my fingers over bending bristles of grass on my abdomen.
I have to admit from the get-go that there’s little that I enjoy more than a good time-bending flash fiction. It’s just skill at its finest, and making the passages in time seamless is an art in itself.
Let’s look at our first example: Meghan Philips’ ‘Mayflies.’ The story begins in the present age, when an invasion of mayflies makes the surface of the Veterans Memorial Bridge an accident hazard for motorcycles. This requires the intervention of the Wrightsville Fire Department to close and guard the bridge — and here the interesting part begins.
The author makes a jump if 150 years (!) in time, saying,
like Major Haller and Colonel Frick’s men did over 150 years ago as Rebel forces advanced after the capture of York.
With only one fine brushstroke, time warps and collapses onto itself, and catastrophes repeat themselves. The parallel continues — and the ending is sobering.
An excellent example of how flexibly time can be used in flash fiction. Read it here.
In Nancy Stohlman’s ‘The Man from the Future,’ the said man intervenes in order to prevent a catastrophe from happening in the piece’s present. This flash also uses playfulness, as well as time-bending and even future-telling – read it here.
In ‘Alligators at Night,’ Meg Pokrass describes a nocturnal landscape on a walk to a Seven-Eleven. It’s an atmospherical piece, charged with feeling and melancholy, but what I find most admirable is the way the author switches between past and present tense, bringing the images more in focus, or blurring them in memory. The first paragraph is told in past tense:
You remember when you lived in Florida briefly,
while the second paragraph gathers immediacy by being told in present tense:
Walking to the Seven-Eleven, what you sometimes want is to never actually get there.
The change is so finely done, almost imperceptible, and it’s truly the brushstroke of a master. Read it here.
Flash fictions told in reverse order were discussed in a previous article (Unusual Structures in Flash Fiction — Part I). Still, I couldn’t talk about time and how it plays in short forms of fiction without mentioning reverse order. Here are a few more stunners that use this technique:
‘Keys’ by AE Weisgerber — a troubling story about a troubled character. I have to admit I still think about this one, more than a month after first reading it.
‘Dead Things in the Water’ by Gaynor Jones — a harrowing story about a troubled child told from the mother’s perspective. It conjured compassion in my heart, without being melodramatic, and also a sense of dread.
Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania. She now lives in Germany. Her prose has been published by Ambit, the 2017 & 2018 NFFD Anthologies, New Delta Review, Banshee, New South Journal etc. and has been placed in various competitions – including TSS (you can read her Flash Fiction ‘The Cesarean’ here). Her novella-in-flash, ‘Bottled Goods,’ set against the backdrop of communist Romania was published by Fairlight Books.