Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Bit of a waffle on flash fiction

I  posted this morning on the #fridayflash fiction part of my site my favorites from this week.  I've been thinking about what makes, in my mind a good piece of flash fiction.

I would like to stress the following before diving into this waffle; a lot of what I am saying here is about my own personal taste and it should be read as such. Who am I ? Just some Joe who also churns out some flash fiction at the DAC

I am not a fan of science fiction, so it is rare that I will read a sci-fi piece, however If I read an opening sentence that grabs us, regardless of genre I am more likely to read it through to the end and I think that is where some flash authors fall down. You have such a short space to fit the entire story in and that opening is so important.

A couple of examples of good openings from this weeks #FridayFlash round:

"Joel and Elijah knew they were in trouble even before they left for the bathroom."

This comes from John Wiswell story "The Balrog Looms"

From that we know the characters, we know the premise and we know the location.  I am now hooked in and want to know who these people are, why they think they are in trouble and what is going to happen

Another good example, this time from Shannon Esposito and her tale Messenger of Death

"Eric fumbled with the buttons on the arm rest of the stolen Nissan. A blast of humid night air hit him. It smelled like charred beef."

I used to drive an old battered and much loved 1992 Peugeot 405 and switching on the blowers would blast several years of dirt and breaking down plastic into the car, which on a hot night produced one hell of a smell. Reading this opening, I've got the atmosphere in my head, I know who the protagonist is and I have a hook into the story that the car is stolen.

Going back to where I think some authors fall down, is they try and cram too much irrelevant description into that opening

"The desk was made of dark wood with  a green leather surface with gold trim" - great!  a story about a desk.

I think if we all step back and be honest, flash fiction is not the platform for great original stories.  Effectively they are all " then he woke up and it was all a dream " or " and it turned out the person he was sitting next to was a ghost". BUT!!!! it is the place for original storytelling and what I think makes a good piece of flash fiction is the authors ability to steer the reader through the tale, keep them entertained and keep them interested to the end; Whether it be through misdirection, blanketing or just plain out lying!

A good example about steering the reader and misdirection can be found in this flash from Karen Schindler  "What a way to go" 

One of the other mistakes I think people make is concentrating too much on elements and detail which are not needed in the piece, rather than putting that focus into what we are all here for -  storytelling. To play devils advocate for a second , I do think some stories need more detail and I think they would of had been far better off as longer pieces rather than flash. Which is a shame as normally these stories, the author has had a cracking idea, but has lost it by trying to cram it into flash length. I've pulled my return to Break Creek as a potential fridayflash for this very reason (posting this short very soon btw).  There are very few authors who can cram entire worlds into a thousand worlds of less , Mazzz In Leeds is a fine example of an author who can.

Next up comes the ending and in all honesty, I think examples of bad endings are few and far between. There are sometimes disappointing endings  "It wasn't a ghost, but rather he suffered from a rare translucent skin condition" and I think this goes back to my previous points. If you don't grab the reader in that first second, you don't keep them entertained and you haven't focused on the art of storytelling; then it doesnt really matter if you have the greatest ending or the worst ending - your reader simply won't care.

A fine example of this week , which I think nicely demonstrates all three points I have made is 
The Mystery Writer Returns By Tim Vansant and an author that never disappoints in this regard is Laura Eno
So coming to the end of my waffle, there is just one final thing I would like to say which will sound familiar to those who have ever pursued artistic or photographic interests:

"First rule of composition is to break the rules of composition"

PS. Evil cats is always a winning subject.


  1. I think if we all step back and be honest, flash fiction is not the platform for great original stories. Effectively they are all " then he woke up and it was all a dream " or " and it turned out the person he was sitting next to was a ghost".

    I disagree. A flash story certainly can fall into those traps and tropes, and perhaps they are more tempting cop-outs in a short form because they can wrap things up so quickly. This is a consequence of inexperienced writers and/or poor writing, not a function of the form itself.

    Original and exciting writing can operate in the flash form, just as it can in any form. Many if not most of the writers in the #FridayFlash group are amateurs (myself included). Week to week, you'd expect a higher proportion of flash fiction clinkers among such a group vs. what you'd see if you had the NYT bestseller list doing work of similar length.

    I agree that some ideas are better suited for longer pieces, as they need more room to be fleshed out, space for the emotions to develop. Picking out a single aspect of a complex idea to focus on for a flash piece, and then develop it in a compelling way takes practice.

    Basically, Sturgeon's Law applies.

  2. Don't get me wrong where I say

    "then he woke up and it was all a dream " or " and it turned out the person he was sitting next to was a ghost".

    I did not that mean that to sound as if I meant it in a derogatory manner. What I was trying to stress was that the approach some people take to flash would be more suited to longer pieces.

  3. I don't think a 'deus ex machina' works in any length of fiction. The reader feels cheated.

    Chance, I don't know where I am right now on your site - I've never been to this page before, but thanks for the nice mention! I'm glad you aren't disappointed. :)

    Love the cat with the laser eyes. ROFL!

  4. Hey Chance,
    Thanks for the shout out.

    LOVED the laser kitty eyes...don't worry, the hair will grow back.


  5. I agree with Laura about the 'deus ex machina' -- I read a novel this summer that used it and I did feel cheated. I had mostly enjoyed the book up to that point.

    I think I view flash fiction as more experimental than you do. Sometimes we don't know whether a piece really warrants expanding to a longer form until after we write it as flash. Flash is a way for me to play with scenes and ideas, see how I [and other people] like them, then reuse/rework them.

    In any case you bring up some interesting points for discussion here. And thanks for your kind comments about my story!



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