There are many definitions of flash fiction — but they all agree in at least one point: that flash fiction must have a story arc, or that it must convey a sense of movement. Or, better said, you can define flash fiction as what it is not: static, a vignette, or a scene.
But there is more than one way to create a story arc. It doesn’t have to be the traditional weaving of exposition, dialogue and description. And because of its brevity, flash fiction is particularly suitable for unusual forms.
I love quirky forms. When I was writing my novella-in-flash, Bottled Goods, (which comprises fifty-one flash fictions), there was nothing that made me avoid being repetitive, and stimulated my creativity more than trying to put a kernel of truth in a different form — like a table, a journal entry, a postcard, or a list. This truly made me wonder about the various ways of writing a story, and how putting it in a different form can challenge the writer, to look at his or her own piece from a different angle.
So, what is a story, in the end? Could a bank statement be a story? Well, yes, it can, since you can retrace any person’s movements and sometimes moves by looking at bank transactions (as you’ll see below). Can a list be a story? Of course! We use lists every day: grocery lists, for instance. They have the amazing ability to tell the future (for instance, if your list says that you plan to buy avocados, lime, tortillas, and chicken breast, it’s written in the stars that you’ll be making fajitas, and not fish and chips).
There’s a true art in extracting stories from day-to-day items — or perverting them into flash fictions in their own right, that force both the reader and the writer to look at the world from startling perspectives.
- (Re)Defining Wor(l)ds
Words are the bricks writers use to build their fortresses of fiction. But some bricks may loom larger than others, and the entire construction of a flash fiction may gravitate around just a few words. Stories can be built around definitions.
Gay Degani’s ‘Abbreviated Glossary’ in Melusine is already a classic. The author takes us through a love story in five key words (‘Want’-‘Pact’-‘Hope’-‘Thrill’-‘Rift’), each of them defined in two to four sentences. The impact at the end of this micro is seismic.
Christina Dalcher’s ‘The Definition of Us,’ AdHoc Fiction winner in November 2016, is breathtakingly clever. Dalcher weaves her entire story around definitions of the word ‘cast,’ or of similar words, like ‘caste’ and ‘castaway,’ and uses links to other sections at the end of her definitions to give us even more clues about what is going on:
‘Cast. verb let down an anchor (see Stand My Ground)’.
A complex story is weaved with the help of very few words.
And, of course, there’s the epic ‘Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild’ by Kathy Fish. This is a piece that doesn’t need any further ado — in fact, anything I’d say would only spoil it.
- Open Dialogue
Entire stories can also be built entirely from dialogue. Let’s take Caleb Echterling’s immensely inventive ‘Haikuzilla,’ winner of the Bartleby Snopes Dialogue Contest in 2016. Echterling changes brilliantly between the characters that report about, or have to deal with the havoc caused by an immense, haiku-reciting monster:
‘Yesterday I ate
A bug. Crunchy. Not unlike
A charred symphony.’
To find out how the Governor with a declining popularity deals with the ‘three-hundred-foot-tall lizard-thing’ that is immune against ‘high tech weapons’ because of its ‘simple, evocative verse,’.
- Receipts and a (Bank) History
Another hugely inventive piece is Dennard Dayle’s ‘Recent Activity.’ It’s written in the form of an extract from a bank transaction history. We follow this character from the cancelled appointment with his psychiatrist, to the acquisition of wedding bands, that dissolves in buying many, many bottles of whiskey. His isolation, frustration and radicalisation are made palpable through the books he begins to acquire. But the most frightening purchase, and which reveals to us the intentions of this character, doesn’t come until close to the end: on ‘3/12/2017’ at a value of 320 dollars.
Monica Dickson’s ‘Receipts,’ up at Spelk, tells the story of a relationship through receipts from bars, restaurants, and even a phone company. The one-sidedness of the relationship is startling and painful, but the narrator does learn something, in the end. The piece opens and ends with a receipt from ‘Kwik Byte Snacks, Beverages and Outside Catering’ — the place where the narrator works. The movement in this flash, and the shift in the narrator’s behaviour is shown to us through her difference in attitude towards these two receipts from the same venue.
- Heeding Instructions
Stories can also be born from instructions — towards a third party, or even instructions to self, like in Sarina Dorie’s ‘Fairy Godmother Protocols’ on Daily Science Fiction. The narrator here is a — surprise — fairy godmother who promises
‘I will fulfill my end of the fairy godmother contract’
‘I will not kiss my human client and break the fairy godmother-godchild client relationship contract.’
In the end, we also find out if the fairy godmother succeeded in following her own instructions — and what kind of women Prince Charming likes.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, an exceptionally poignant piece that emerged from instructions is ‘Last Will’ by Rachel Sherman. This young woman instructs her loved one what to do with her soap, files, clothes, and then even with her toenail clippings, eyes, lips, uterus after she’s gone. A complex image of this woman’s life, past, and idiosyncrasies emerges. Her desires are shown to us in an oblique and touching manner:
‘If you really miss me, sew my clothes into pillowcases. If you really care, hold them at night. Sleep on their stomach. Pretend to keep me warm.’
And finally, we have the flash written in the form of a recipe. Ingrid Jendrzejewski’s ‘Shadow Broth’ was commended in the June 2018 Bath Flash Fiction Award. There’s a veiled beauty to this mysterious, poetic flash.
‘1 cup nothing / 1 tsp dust motes that fizz in unexpected light’
We receive instructions, and even if we don’t know what for, the subtext speaks to us — it’s like gazing with wide open eyes into a bright light.
‘(I)t’s okay to sing to it, and let it sing back to you.’
- Reverse Order
Do you know that Enigma video from the ‘90s, ‘The Return to Innocence,’ where the unicorn runs backwards, and all the pears unfold from the trees? That’s how I feel when I read a story told in reverse order.
There’s a quiet power in beginning a story at the end, and it’s often more frightening to see how it all began, and what led the protagonists to the critical point in the beginning-which-is-the-end. Or the end-which-is-the-beginning can turn out to be poignant and nostalgic, just like in Megan Giddings’ ‘Goodbye, Piano.’ The piece begins with the destruction of the piano, which becomes a character in itself. It’s an act that seems violent, and rather gratuitous. In the end, we find out how the piano was found by the narrator, and the entire flash becomes a single, vibrating metaphor for the merciless passing of time.
I hope this review of the five fascinating unusual structures has whet your appetite for more boundary-breaking flash fiction. In the next instalment, we’ll look at lists, letter, drawings, and even stories written with the help of multiple choice questionnaires. Until then, if you’re interested in quirky forms, here are a few more pieces that employ the unusual structures I’ve described in this article:
- My Father Comforts Me in the Form of Birds — Sharon Telfer
- On a Book Entitled Lolita — Meg Hall
- Seven Strains — And a Tritone — Alina Stefanescu
- Gun — Ethan Feuer
- Relative Outcomes — Taria Karillion To Carry Her Home — Bath Flash Fiction Vol. One (print)
- Consumerism — Alexander Sawyer-Irish
- Hash — Trevor Dodge http://coniumreview.com/blog/hash/
- Oklahoma Fried Potato Sandwich — Mira Martin-Parker
- Horses Not Included — H. L. Fullerton
- Download — Anthony Gerrard
- Rules of the High Wire — Stephanie Hutton
- You Have So Many Options Than Fight or Flight — Al Kratz
- Overspill — Rachael Dunlop Ellipsis Zine ‘Two’ (print)
The second part of this article on Unusual Structures – packed with more great flash fiction examples – can be read by following the link here. You can also read her third essay – On Novellas-in-Flash – here.
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.
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