Wednesday, April 14, 2010

FLASH FICTION

Or flash something.

I'm going to do my usual kvetching and say I basically only write flash fiction when I post a challenge. I once won a Derringer for a flash fiction story, but it succeeded on the strengths of a gimmick. Shame on me-- unless you tell me most flash fiction does.

I have a horrible time with it. By the time I set up the conflict, I am 600 words into the story. Then I have to resolve it in a couple hundred words. I am meant to write 3500 word stories--not much more and not much less.

So what is the secret to writing good flash? Is it being able to set something up quickly? Is it using a very small canvass to paint on? Is it "you gotta have a gimmick (Gypsy)."

Tell me your secrets or what you've found out from reading the best of these stories. What's the best flash fiction story you've read and tell me where to find it. PLEASE.

33 comments:

K. A. Laity said...

I think flash is a lot like telling a joke even if it's not funny; after all, a good joke tells a kind of story so it must have tension and a surprise (There were these two fish in a tank and one says to the other, "Do you know how to drive this?"). I have had the best results with stories that rely on a simple realisation. A flash piece has to establish setting and character in a few immediate strokes either through familiar assumptions or through focused evocation of a very specific site. It's always going to be easier with the familiar. But timing and economy, yeah.

Loren Eaton said...

The one thing I know is that I've never read good flash fiction that turns on a pun.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Does anything good turn on a pun? I have never understood their charm.
Nice new way to think about it, Kate.

K. A. Laity said...

Puns are usually painful. Trying to think of an exception.... nope.

Todd Mason said...

Punsters: Dorothy Parker. Shakespeare, Joyce, Lewis Carrooll. Sigh, my friends, sigh. Clever puns are good things.

I think I've made the point before that structuring a story like a joke makes the story a joke...I prefer the vignette that plunges one into the situation, and doesn't necessarily spell everything out, though everything is represented.

Among my favorite vignettes are
"Levitation" by Joesph Payne Brennan
"Trace" by Jerome Bixby
"Borges and Me," "The Other Death" and many others by Jorge Luis Borges
"Come Closer" and "'I Had Carelessly Crumpled It in My Pocket--But, By God, Elliot, It was a Photograph from Life!'" by Joanna Russ
The entirety of THE CASTLE OF CROSSED DESTINIES (and much of ITALIAN FOLKTALES) by Italo Calvino
"Laura" by Saki
...any number of others are calling from the flu-med-extended distance...not a few by Barry Malzberg, Fredric Brown, David Bunch, Katherine McLean, Edward Wellen.

Fleur Bradley said...

My favorite flash fiction is more like an overheard conversation. I think the key is not to try to explain everything, but let the reader draw more conclusions from details.

Best places for flash... Pequin, maybe, but for crime fiction, I would look at any of the zines.

It's my favorite length--gratifying as a writer, since it's finished quickly and forces me to really flex that writing muscle.

Todd Mason said...

Carrooll indeed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

If I don't have a gimmick, I seem to start the same way I start longer pieces. There's the rub.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Todd-how are you? It seems like this flu is really dragging on. Have you taken Elderberry tablets?

Bill Crider said...

I know very little about flash fiction. When I saw the picture today, I thought I was on George Kelley's blog for a second or two.

Todd Mason said...

"The Handler" by Damon Knight.

George said...

I really like your graphic, Patti!

Richard Prosch said...

Isn't Flash Fiction the same as the old Short-Short? Fredric Brown was a master of these, though they sometimes did turn on a gimmick. His "The End" comes to mind, which is a story-as-palindrome.

Todd Mason said...

No elderberry, no...thanks for asking.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Actually I did have FOR GEORGE on it but I thought I'd wait for him to notice it. Took me a while to find a redhead but when I did-zowie.
Yes, Richard, Brown is the master. I read a bunch of his before I did the first one. He invented it, I think.
Elderberry, Todd. It's held off a cold I have had coming on for two years now. Tablets, tea, wine. Any of them.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't call it a gimmick really, but I find some kind of relatively simple twist ending is what allows me to complete most flash fic in a reasonable word count. Sometimes I just write a surrealistic essay almost and that counts. Hey, if it works it works and there's no gimmick to that.

Richard R. said...

"Carrooll" - Todd flu over the cuckoo's nest...

Okay, bad pun, but all of them aren't. As for the flash fiction, the ones I've enjoyed most are the ones that drop me into the middle of a scene full of questions and some kind of action: a chase, someone being shot at, an accident, jumping out of a plane, train coming and car-on-tracks won't start, whatever. If it grabs me enough I want to find out what happens even if I don't know much - or anything - about the people involved until the end or even ever.

pattinase (abbott) said...

HA! Rick. Pretty good on the spot. Of course, puns are always on the spot-or aren't they?
Thanks for your take on it. My tendency is to start at someone's birth and move forward. I admire that my husband never reads a book from the beginning and doesn't even watch movies that way. Me, page one every time. First scene every time.
Do you have the twist when you begin, Charles? Or does it come to you?

Todd Mason said...

Really, though...no need for a "twist." No kidding. That tends to trivialize the story. It becomes a mechanical creation, a punchline delivery system. None of my favorite vignettes mentioned have a "twist" so much as a realization.

Why exactly would he refuse to follow a book or film in linear fashion? That does tend to spoil the flow that a good technician, at least, is trying to establish?

K. A. Laity said...

Well, not a twist: I'm certainly not suggesting some kind of M. Night Shamalamadingdong kind of GOTCHA ending. That's why I used "simple realisation" and not twist which seems more of a punning sort of feghoot thingee, which I am not at all fond of.

Transcendent puns, I will accept. But they are rare enough that I could not think of one immediately (though of course "You can lead a whore to culture..." does come back to mind after your mentioning Parker).

I reiterate, timing and economy. No twist necessary.

Ginger strippers, eh -- there's a man who knows what he wants.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Now I just thought of a twist for this flash story so I may have to use it. Not exactly a twist since it arises from what comes before it. I'll write it for now and if nothing else comes....

Phil likes to work his way into a book from the middle spreading out. I don't understand it. Came with all the academic training, I think.

kitty said...

If you can write a complete story in 150 words, Narrative Magazine might be interested. They're going to launch iStory, and they'll pay $250. Read the four they've posted already.

But the master of flash fiction has to be Dogbert.

...

pattinase (abbott) said...

150-a sentence maybe. Perhaps a paragraph but I doubt it. Thanks, Kitty! I'll check them both out.

K. A. Laity said...

I made my grad students write Twitter stories (140 characters including punctuation) so I could give a presentation on it at the Great Writing Conference. Hey, I wanted to go to Wales.

Some of them were quite brilliant.

pattinase (abbott) said...

They are used to writing succinctly.
Love Wales.

Eric Beetner said...

I'm with you Patti, flash is not my strong suit, though my Needle story is a flash piece at Steve's request.
I like to think of it like looking out the window of a moving car. You can see something that doesn't give you the full story but gives you enough to intrigue and entice and then the reader can have the fun of filling in a few blank spots. I also think it is a good exercise in how little you need to spoon feed a reader for them to follow a story.
Good flash gives a glimpse of a larger world. Sometimes the end can just be a question mark and it is just as satisfying as a neatly tied conclusion.
I feel like I've only succeeded a few times but when it works it really doesn't beg for any more words.

Anonymous said...

i think of flash as more of a pencil sketch than a detailed picture--but the work can still have depth and definition.

although i don't always go for the big twist ending i do have several ingredients i use on a regular basis.

[and patti, i'm in for the next go-round in may.]

john mcauley

pattinase (abbott) said...

Cool, John.
Eric-I think if I wrote one every week, I might improve. It's like flexing an unused muscle.

Todd Mason said...

iStory requires a "Submission Fee: There is a $20 fee for each submission. And with your submission, you’ll receive three months of complimentary access to Narrative Backstage."

No, thank you.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

I have often said that it takes me four paragraphs to say hello if I meet you on the street, so flash fiction is out of the question!!

Sorry, I'm no help.

Terrie

Paul D. Brazill said...

Re:FF. As Robert Altman said, 'Just get to the verb!"

K. A. Laity said...

Belated analogy: not a pencil sketch (pace john mcauley) but sumi-e, ink brush painting -- it suggests rather than spells out, but captures the moment, the movement.

Cormac Brown said...

I approach flash fiction and to short stories as a screenwriter and I know going in that I am just writing two to four scenes, with a cohesive ending. If only screenplays and short films were this easy.