June 8, 2021
How Flash Fiction Improves Your Writing
by Sudha Balagopal
(Editor's note: Don't forget to submit your shorts (fiction or nonfiction) to CWA's Summer Flash Contest)
Five years ago, after writing long fiction for years, I became fascinated with flash fiction. Today, I'm a proud flash fictioneer, a practitioner of the style that's been called sudden fiction, short-short, miniature and postcard.
There are many reasons why writers get attracted to the craft. Sometimes it's the brevity, other times it's the impact the form can create. I enumerated my own personal reasons in a recent article where I talk, among other things, about the challenge and profundity of flash. Fact is, I became enchanted with it because the form made me a better writer.
Don't take my word for it. I asked six flash aficionados, Grant Faulkner, Jacqueline Doyle, Kim Magowan, Cheryl Pappas, Tommy Dean and Francine Witte, how the style makes them better writers and their responses were enlightening and re-affirming.
Grant Faulkner says that flash, more than any other prose form, relies on the breaths of a story.
"Writing flash fiction has transformed my writing, all of my writing, no matter the length or genre. Perhaps most importantly, flash makes me pay intense attention to each detail of a story, every sentence, every word, every rhythm and rumble. Especially with 100-word stories, which require writing in a tight container, I have to question whether each word is doing the work it has to do for the story. Nothing can be extraneous. There can't be any fat.
But it's not just about the words: writing flash is so much about what is left out. Flash, more than any other prose form, relies on the breaths of a story, the spaces the reader must fill in—so a short short becomes a collaboration with the reader, a dance. I have to write with hints that allow the reader to conjure the story. I have to use the mood of a story, not paragraphs or chapters, as its connective tissue. I have to search for the essence of a story, not its whole. My story materials become caesuras and crevices, wisps and whisperings. In the end, a story is as much about its silences as it is about its words. It's about its touches, the brushes of its lips."
Check out Grant Faulker's story here: The Toad
Jacqueline Doyle tells us flash gets down to the absolute essentials.
"Flash allows you to distill narrative down to the absolute essentials, and then distill it even further, a valuable skill for any writer. In my microflash “Little Darling” in Wigleaf, I tell the story of a very young girl and a predatory older man in the smallest possible space. The potential variants in parentheses (“My theater teacher. My mother’s boyfriend. My soccer coach.”) show just how common the story is. It’s written in first person, but this is not a voice-driven monologue. Dialogue is barely indicated. Sentences aren’t completed. (“And we met. And we. And he. And I.”) Everything that’s not necessary has been trimmed away. The reader can easily fill in the blanks, and also read between the lines. While the girl frames the story by insisting on her version of events (“It was my idea. Not his.” “I’m a woman now.”), the reader is not likely to agree."
Check out Jacqueline Doyle's story here: Little Darling.
Kim Magowan likes the fact that flash allows innovation and experimentation.
"The main reason I love flash fiction, and find this form so addictive, is that writing flash makes me a better writer. The skills flash fiction hones are portable; I carry them to my longer work. In flash fiction every word counts. (Certainly that’s one way of thinking about the 1000 word count: as not just a direction but an imperative! Choose words carefully; cut anything extraneous or imprecise). Because of its brevity flash fiction allows me to be innovative and experimental. A long version of my “Madlib” story would be tedious and oppressive, too much. But at 100 words, a reader can read it once, think “Huh?,” read it a second time and have the story click into place. The Madlib form allows me to tell and not tell the story at the same time, to tell it slanted and sideways. The capitalized words conceal and reveal."
Check out Kim Magowan's story here: Madlib
Tommy Dean asks us to consider the power of implication and inference.
I think we can agree that flash is its own form with its own sense of rules or suggestions or ways to craft it. I would ask the flash writer to consider the power of implication and inference. The writer, through the filtering of details, descriptions and point of view of the main character, implies feelings, tones, moods; implies a sense of drama, of action occurring on the stage of the story. Action, reaction, choice have more power, more weight than summary, stated feelings, and details that are static. Writing is a game between writer and reader to see how much the reader can understand implicitly. This is the high-wire act that the flash writer engages in with each sentence. How can they say so much by using so few words?"
Check out Tommy Dean's story here: Among Their Skin
Cheryl Pappas says flash helps her pay attention to word, sound and image.
"Writing flash makes me a better writer because it helps me pay extremely close attention to word, sound and image. It’s like being a secret poet. Things don’t always have to make literal sense. I can jump ahead in time. I can borrow forms. I can juxtapose unexpected elements. I can use repeated words and phrases as a bass line while the story provides the melody. I’ve learned so much about image-making by writing flash. Having the reader see what I see in my mind is no longer my goal; it’s more active than that. I want to give the reader just enough of the image to let them have it and create their own. It’s very much an alive thing! It’s exciting to do that."
Check out her story which appeared in The Chattahooche Review, Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue here: Homework
Francine Witte has developed ways to shorthand with flash.
"When I wrote plays in the 90’s I enjoyed one-acts because of what was left out. You have to write just enough so that your ideas can’t be mistaken, but the reader or play-goer knows exactly what isn’t there. I started as a poet and to me, the essence of poetry was that you can’t say what is meant directly, that the poem’s job is to evoke. I first transitioned this sparseness to my playwrighting and then when I discovered writing flash fiction it was an easy jump.
In poetry you don’t need the elements of storytelling that you need in flash. And playwrighting needs a dramatic arc, but does not require, or even allow, narration. So, flash has this special concern. How to describe a character or a setting or tell backstory? I've had to develop ways to shorthand these things.
Now, when I want to write something longer I hold onto this idea of compression and write in smaller chunks. I particularly enjoyed writing my novella in flash, The Way of the Wind, because I focused on writing each piece as a separate flash even though they had a narrative progression.
Check out Francine Witte's story here: My Mama Wanted a Zebra
So there we have it, confirmation that writing flash indeed makes for a stronger writer. Everything the writers have elucidated reinforces the fact that flash is a trove, allowing the reader to find the treasure that is the story. For that to happen a writer needs all the writing skills they can muster even as they make the process look effortless.
I thank Grant Faulkner, Jacqueline Doyle, Kim Magowan, Tommy Dean, Cheryl Pappas and Francine Witte for their sage insights. Do click on the links to read their stellar stories. Every story from these flash virtuosos is a glorious paean to the craft of flash fiction.
Sudha Balagopal's recent flash fiction appears in Grub Street Literary Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Matchbook, Smokelong and Split Lip Magazine among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50 and her work will be in Best Microfiction 2021. Find her on Twitter @authorsudha or at www.sudhabalagopal.com
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