So then, plot does not matter.
It does, of course, but it gets to it in a different way. The primary focus of flash fiction is to present mental associations through words to the reader that will allow the reader to enter into whatever memory or knowledge they have which mirrors the associations of the character in the story at that moment in the piece of flash fiction. In the example, it is a man going through an airport but if for a reader it is something else that is fine as long as it triggers the same associations of memory that were activated in the character’s mind while moving through the airport. Therefore, using the structure of flash fiction, a piece of writing does not need to create the same story for of all readers but rather only aims to express the feeling of the character(s) by using the words he/she associates with the experience being presented. This allows the reader to quite literally enter into the mind of the character because instead of the story telling the reader what the character is thinking or feeling, flash fiction allows the writer to show the reader how and what the brain of the character is connecting to create this moment in the narrative.
Use Flash Fiction to Step Outside your Comfort Zone (and step up your craft in the process)
by Charity Tahmaseb
Flash fiction is versatile. It might not always be easy to write, but it’s certainly rewarding. Sometimes, it’s even fun. Best of all? You can use flash fiction to push the boundaries of your craft and end up with something surprising.
So step outside your comfort zone and into something new.
Step into a new genre:
Want to try a new genre but not certain it’s for you or if you’ll even like writing it? Yes, you could spend several months and 120,000 words on an epic fantasy - only to discover you hate it.
Or you could spend a week writing several flash fiction pieces. This is the writing version of making little bets of exploring possibilities for your writing in a low risk, low time-commitment way.
If it works out and you fall in love with fantasy (or literary fiction, or mystery), you’ll have several pieces to submit while writing that novel. And if it doesn’t work? Then you’ll have sharpened skills and developed your craft in productive ways that will inform your other stories.
Step up your style:
Use flash fiction to play with form. Tell a story using a to-do list, a series of text messages, or old-fashioned letters, someone’s Tweeter-storm. Start with the end of a story and work backward or try your hand at a Rashomon (the same incident/story from different perspectives).
If you normally write in first person point of view, now’s the time to try omniscient third. If you always write in third, try first. Or, you could commit the ultimate writerly sin and go for a second person point of view.
Step into the impossible:
Take something impossibly big, like an epic fantasy, historical fiction, or a love story, something you wouldn’t expect to see in flash fiction. Now consider whether you can tell it in the fewest words possible.
Can you? It might be fun, and for me this is my favorite challenge, although I confess these stories don’t always turn out. But when they do, they can be amazing.
Flash teaches you that you don’t need to show or tell the reader everything. Often, what you leave out can be more important than what you drop in. This is something you can use in all your work, not simply short stories and flash fiction.
Flash teaches you to compress, condense, and at the same time, to focus on the sensory details, the tactile things making whatever is happening real. Take a single conflict - a thief desperately in needs a loaf of bread, a blacksmith who must shoe a villain’s horse - and let it represent the larger background struggle of the untold story.
Step into a new process:
Writers can be superstitious about their process. Why mess with something that works? Unless, of course, it doesn’t work, or at least, not always. Flash is a low-risk way of auditioning new tools and methods for your overall craft toolbox.
For instance, some writers love prompts. You give them one, and a week later, they have an entire chapbook’s worth of prose poems. Me? Unless I have a notion already brewing in my subconscious, I’ll see a prompt, and my mind will be as blank as a new Word document.
No matter where you fall on that continuum, prompts can be useful. I routinely scan theme calendars and calls for submissions. Sometimes, something sparks. More often than not, I use the notions as fodder for other stories. But every once in a while, I’ll sit myself down with a prompt, set a timer, and free write. Most often, it’s just good practice. On rare occasions, I’ll get something to works.
Makes it worth all the pain. And it’s one more way to make a little bet with your writing.
Embarking on a thirty-day writing challenge is another way of making little bets with your writing. Can you write historical fiction? Take a month and find out. Drawn to the literary genre but feel intimidated? Work through a series of flash fiction pieces and explore the genre in depth.
If you want to try this more structured approach, consider A Story a Day in May or The Southeast Writers Regimen. No matter your genre, one of the best reasons to write flash fiction is the confidence boost you’ll get from finishing one or more stories. You’re signalling to your subconscious, ‘Hey you can finish a story.’
Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fiction and works as a technical writer in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Deep Magic, Escape Pod, Cicada, and Pulp Literature.
She’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize Award, and her first novel 'The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading' was a YALSA 2012 Popular Paperback pick in the Get Your Geek On category.
She's recently stepped out of her comfort with two historical short stories. The Saint of Bright Red Things is currently available in The Binge-Watching Cure, and The Potato Bug War will appear in issue 19 of Pulp Literature.
You can get keep up to date with Charity via her blog - https://writingwrongs.blog/ or by following her on twitter @geekgirlx2
You do not have to try
Going back to the flash fiction example again,
“An inattentive, transient jackass says, – “Check it” – high-pitched, estrogenic sound awkwardly steam from thick, too-big lips covering precarious tan teeth. Mirrored sunglasses sterilize eyes plunging transgressor back to fatigued, faded skin, unkempt hair – a brain of questions, comments, demands, justifications – stayed verbally, exposed physically – “Is there a problem?” Pigments, parchments, binding, images relapse then release ribbed steel, scuffed plastic, relabeled boxes reskinned with tape, twine, and plastic that meld into a horizontal borough in motion, eclectic and naïve to the pigment of deities” (Miller, 2012).
There is no ‘try’ in the readers’ brains – they are forced to access the associations they hold for each word or each set of words (depending on how a reader takes them off the page) but by doing this how can it be guaranteed they end up with ‘airport’? It is not guaranteed and it does not matter because flash fiction is not driven primarily by plot. What? Take the first sentence of the flash fiction example, “An inattentive, transient jackass says, – “Check it” – high-pitched, estrogenic sound awkwardly steam from thick, too-big lips covering precarious tan teeth” (Miller, 2012).
Now there is nothing in there that guarantees these words will be associated with ‘airport’ in the mind of the reader but it is an absolute (almost) that these words will be associated with something or some things; meaning some associations are becoming active in the minder’s brain. However, there will be someone who reads the example and nothing is accessed, no associations are activated – and that is fine; this piece is not for them. However, for those for whom it does it could be an assortment of associations that become activated. For one reader it might be their uncle Eli, for another a security guard at a concert she attended in the eleventh grade of high school, and for yet another, well this can go on forever but some memory(s) or piece(s) of knowledge will be activated by the sentence. If the line does not activate associations the reader has which are connected to ‘airport’, that is fine because it does not have to – what it has to do is activate the associations the reader has with these words. This for them will be the primary association but then whatever this might also be associated with are the secondary associations. For instance, if the example made a reader think about her uncle then all of the associations of him are also activated or if it was a high school concert memory then everything connected to that is activated. Most importantly, the series of words used by the writer to express the character’s movement through an airport were done to explain just what a prose piece does – to allow the reader into the world and mind of the character. If the character in the flash fiction piece is in an airport but the reader associates all of the story elements to something else that is fine because whatever the reader associated it to is associated with the same memories and knowledge for the reader as the airport is for the character in the story.
In flash fiction it is
A reader holds a vast store of knowledge, experiences and memories that are uniquely networked to create a neural lattice-like topography of concept associations in their brain. Many traditional narrative pieces of fiction will introduce a concept within a certain situation, with a certain type of character(s). Then the story will move the reader systematically or connection by connection (association by association) through the narrative arch of the story, all the while providing the reader with the necessary information from which to recreate the reality of the story, the plot, within their brain. Flash fiction of course does the same thing but the structure of the sentences attempts to mimic the native space holding the concepts in the reader’s brain. It tries to access the memories and knowledge of the reader indirectly by bouncing around, as it were; the edges of primary associations through the presentation of second order ones. For example, if ‘airport’ is the primary association that a piece of flash fiction wishes to get at then by creating a passage containing entirely secondary associations to it would allow the reader to get to airport.
“An inattentive, transient jackass says, – “Check it” – high-pitched, estrogenic sound awkwardly steam from thick, too-big lips covering precarious tan teeth. Mirrored sunglasses sterilize eyes plunging transgressor back to fatigued, faded skin, unkempt hair – a brain of questions, comments, demands, justifications – stayed verbally, exposed physically – “Is there a problem?” Pigments, parchments, binding, images relapse then release ribbed steel, scuffed plastic, relabeled boxes reskinned with tape, twine, and plastic that meld into a horizontal borough in motion, eclectic and naïve to the pigment of deities.” (Miller, 2012)
Why not just say – airport? For example, ‘John arrived at the airport.’ After all, according to the theory being laid out, airport would be a primary association and by saying it, the reader will access all of the secondary associations held in connection to it. Both ways get you to the idea of ‘airport’ and thusly all of the other mental associations held by the reader connected to it. True, however, by just saying ‘airport’ in a line of fiction and relying on the reader to make the connections is a one directional process. The readers will move away from ‘airport’ into whatever else is associated to it for them. However, by using the example given a reader is required to take a multi-directional route to arrive at ‘airport’. This multi-directionality of the text is important because, as was mentioned earlier, the associations within each individual will be different. Indeed there is the possibility that ‘airport’ might not be the primary association triggered by the example given above for some readers and if that is the case then why not just write out the example in standard prose so that it includes the primary association of ‘airport’ and whatever secondary associations the writer wishes to be connected to it for the character.
“John moved from the plane through the long passageways of the airport with the rest of the tired passengers until they all arrived in a dazed mass at the queue for immigration. The officials in their stations seemed even more distracted than the passengers from flight 785. Settling into his place in the line John noticed a few security-personal were among them; apparently randomly asking to see passports. He knew he was ‘random’ and seeing one of them getting closer he made sure his papers were already in his hand. The officer didn’t disappoint and after being asked to step inside a waiting room John knew something wasn’t right. The officer though didn’t stay but rather closed the door and left John alone in the florescent lights and odor of something unfresh in the room for the next twenty-some minutes. “Is there a problem?” John asked when finally a different officer came into the room. But rather than answering his seemingly simple question this new but from the same mold officer decided that another twenty minutes of questions and accusations were a better idea. In the end, John had told them nothing that wasn’t either in his passport already or answers to questions which a lie and truth couldn’t be proven one way or the other. Standing in front of the baggage carousel John watched the suitcases and other assortment of boxes and parcels pass by him while the whole time thinking that at least these artifacts had an equality among themselves once their owners have been removed from them.” (Miller, 2013)
There it is, right there in the first sentence of the original example rewritten in prose; the word ‘airport’. Now for this theory to be correct, the word ‘airport’ should also trigger the activation of the other mental associations in the mind of the reader connected to airport. It will, but when reading the prose passage the reader will be naturally distracted by the plot of the piece. They will read the word airport, access their associations and assure themselves that yes they understand the concept of airport and then keep reading in order to find out what is happening in this airport. This airport is the point. Even if the prose passage were to be rewritten by a hundred different writers in a hundred different ways it would still be something where the reader is trying to follow the plot (most likely), trying to understand – trying to do something while all the time accessing their primary associations connected to the words they read.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon, writing fiction, by and large, unless it's small. He has been caught flashing at Café Aphra, 365 Tomorrows, ZeroFlash and Fewer Than 500 among others. His story ‘6:58’ brings back thoughts to the reader of a life lived and is a wonderful addition to the Spring 2018 edition of NUNUM. DL can be found on Twitter at dlshirey or at www.dlshirey.com