Tue 25 Feb 2014
by Angela Rydell
The very short story writer compensates like a blind man navigating the world with his all senses heightened—empowered because of it, not beaten down.
Flash writers confront a challenge unique to the genre. We’re not just short story writers but “very” short story writers, keepers of the koan-like question, “How do you get more out of less?” The answer requires not just craft but craftiness. Fewer words expand rather than diminish the possibilities for creativity—as long as you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve. The very short story writer compensates like a blind man navigating the world with his all senses heightened—empowered because of it, not beaten down. We take advantage of what we’ve got to work with, including the mystery of ambiguity.
Visual artists understand this mystery well. We’ve all admired the artist who skillfully creates a line drawing. My husband recently said of an artist friend of his, “In one line—barely picking up her pencil—she can draw a baby jumping over the moon.” This is the “less is more” we strive for.
A colleague of mine, Laurel Yourke, teaches ambiguity by invoking that classic optical illusion of the vase and the faces. The picture captures more than one image simultaneously, depending on your perception. But the lines are clear, as are both interpretations. They might take you a little while to find, but they’re both there. Ambiguity isn’t vagueness. The Latin ambi translates as “on both sides” or “both ways.” That’s the kind of ambiguity we need in a flash—clarity and mystery simultaneously. A few well-defined lines invoke multiple interpretations, and the reader’s imagination fills in the rest.
So what are some techniques we can use to make that happen? Here are seven suggestions for finessing ambiguity in a flash:
1) Maximize both denotation and connotation. A single word can provide more than one meaning. Consider the title of Nicky Drayden’s three sentence story “Pushover,” from Hint Fiction. Here’s the last sentence: “He’s worn me down, weaker than that railing at the canyon’s rim.” Our mind bridges the gap between title and the implications of “worn down.” Picks up on that weak railing, the significance of “canyon’s rim.” Meaning expands as we fill in the blanks, make the connections, and imagine an implied conclusion.
2) Focus image. Home in on a central image or object that stands for more than one thing. In “79:PM,” a story in Amelia Gray’s delightful first collection AM/PM, the protagonist admires her partner’s unusual gold leaf tattoo which makes “a pattern of fish scales across his spine.” She tells him it’s beautiful, and he responds in kind:
“You’re beautiful,” he said, turning his head halfway.
“Not as beautiful as a gold flake.”
He considered it. “Maybe not. It was a very special process.”
“Must have been,” Tess said. She felt sure she would die alone.
The story hinges on the tattoo, and conversation around it. That last line, delivered succinctly, resonates emotionally because each character reacts not just to each other, but to what the image represents. It’s less a question of beauty than where their relationship’s headed.
3) Use dialogue that does double duty. Look at the excerpt from Gray’s story again (quoted above). There’s no chit-chat or extraneous information. The dialogue’s got more than one job to do: It delivers theme. Delivers character. Provides surprising turns. Bare essential plot tensions—that “yearning, challenged or thwarted,” Robert Olen Bulter calls for in his essay in the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. Dialogue, too, is best when it shows rather than tells.
4) Milk metaphor. In Robert Schuster’s “Eclipsed” (from Jerome Sterns’ classic Micro Fiction collection), the 250 word story opens with the central metaphor, which cuts to the heart of the story—fear of death:
“Anxious not to miss the coming darkness, Gavin woke early and watched Dad construct the viewers from boxes. Behind his pile of aluminum foil, cardboard and glue, Dad said: ”You see, when the moon passes in front of the sun, like this,” he held up his hairy fists before his eyes, ”my head, the earth, gets dark.”
The story centers on the eclipse, a strong symbolic core, as a young boy contemplates his father’s mortality. Double meaning abounds from beginning to end—the literal eclipse and the metaphorical.
5) Exploit contrast. Throw a purple pillow on a yellow couch, and because the colors are opposites on the color wheel, the pillow pops. In “Athens by Night” by Sandra Jensen, barely a line goes by without some kind of intriguing contrast. The setting embodies opposition: It’s Valentine’s Day, yet there’s a break up. They’re at the Athens Hilton—high status. But the young pov character is “drinking Coca Cola.” “Demitris the millionaire” proposes to the pov character’s mom, and the scene toys with highs—it’s a rooftop bar—and lows, plummeting at the end to the blunt, “We remained poor as dirt.” The juxtaposition inherent in good contrast allows readers to see distinctions even more clearly and intensely. Opposition’s implicit, and writers say more with less.
6) Nail irony. Reality’s hard to pin down, even in a three-hundred page novel. But irony, the ultimate literary contrast, nails incongruities between expectations and the realities we’re confronted with. Much good flash fiction thrives on it. Another memorable story from Sterns’ Micro Fiction collection, Maryanne O’Hara’s “Diverging Paths and All That,” finesses double irony as distracted Dollar Saver customers watch “Nixon resign on twenty TV sets” while a boy filches “Hershey bars and Bic pens” and quips, “I really save my dollars here.”
7) Embrace context. The phrase “context clues” might sound like a blast from the past, a high school English teacher telling you how to suss out meaning. But think of it in reverse. What clues are you going to give your readers so they can figure out what’s happening in the brief light of your flash? Too few, and readers scratch their heads, unsure whether a story that starts “shots pounded around him” is about a guy in a bar or a war zone. If the story doesn’t clear that up pronto, it’ll fizzle fast. Yes, you want to leave room for the reader’s imagination to fill in blanks. But you mustn’t leave too many blanks or too few clues to bridge gaps. A few context clues can make all the difference.
Whether or not Hemingway penned the classic six worder “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn,” the story’s stayed with us in part because the context (implied in “for sale”) allows readers to interpret the underlying tragedy. Like the clean structure of a good joke, very short stories need set up. But set up doesn’t mean a lengthy or even brief explanation of who’s who, where characters are and why readers should care. Often immersion’s the way to go. Let context clues orient the reader as the story unfolds, even if the whole story’s just a sentence or two. Subtly offer readers just enough clues to the mystery that lies ahead.
Angela Rydell is a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, and writing instructor. Her stories and poems have appeared in journals both in print and online, including The Sun, Indiana Review, NANO Fiction, Flashquake, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Angela’s flash fiction won the Portland Review’s inaugural Flash Fiction Friday contest, was a finalist in the American Short(er) Fiction Prize, and received honorable mention in the New Millennium Writings Awards Flash Fiction Contest. She lives in Madison, WI, where she teaches creative writing courses in UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, including the online workshop Fiction in a Flash.