Tue 17 Mar 2015
by Gay Degani
There is no exact price one can put on words when we consider what words teach us, how they inspire us, where they take us, but writers selecting those words must always weigh their value—how much bang for the buck does each word give—before sending them off as a story, especially a piece of flash fiction. Words are precious in any work of fiction. They are the stuff that create mood, reveal character, offer tension, but in flash, each word must be absolutely worth the space it uses. If it does not serve a very specific function, then it must be reconsidered for one that does.
If you read my previous essay about questioning the text, you know that one of the ways to learn craft is to spend time with the texts of admired authors to learn how they do what they do, how they manage to convey a whole personality, a setting, a complication in so few words. How do they do it? Let me provide some examples.
From Sherrie Flick’s “Secrets“(New Flash Fiction Review), her second paragraph:
High up in the hayloft, Robbie looked down on the pile of fresh hay. The sweet smells; stark blue skies ringing outside the barn door. Dust sparkled in the air around him–and his brothers romped all around. Hand-me-downs, crew cuts, hard-soled shoes. (43 words)
What do you know about this piece? My suppositions are
hayloft = a barn, a farm, out in the country, rural
sparkled = summer or Saturday, at least a break. Could be winter but since there is no word used to provide a sense of cold weather…
brothers = family, at least two brothers, maybe more
romped = young, fun-loving, teasing
hand-me-downs = poor or at least middle-class
crewcuts = perhaps in the past, 40s 50s even 60s, unlikely current
hard-soled shoes = these boys work on the farm; this is probably just a break
In this paragraph, the author provides the reader with an anchor, a visual setting, a sense of the characters: a rural place where the air is pure, where poor farm boys roughhouse in a loft during a break in their chores. With the title Secrets and the first paragraph, which uses precise language to set up the rambunctious spirit of boys, “Robbie jumped out of the hayloft and hit his head,” Sherrie Flick sets up tension and foreboding. What happens in this 238-word story comes to the reader as a movie would with a specific situation, actions taken, a moment of revelation. The impact of the story comes from the opening, from the exact nature of information given. The reader does not have to wonder who, what, when, where, why, and how. This evidence is there, not necessarily to be understood in an absolute sense, but rather tethered to a reality that can be “seen” and “felt” by the reader. Every word counts.
Here’s another example from Barry Basden’s story, “We Continue to Evolve ” (Fwriction Review) The first line:
“Since the drought, turkey vultures have begun riding afternoon thermals into town, gliding in on their enormous wings to survey heatstruck pets in parched backyards.”(25 words)
What are the suppositions? What does “the drought” tell the reader? Bad times! Vultures! But what does the word “turkey” add to this piece? Why use it if words are so precious? For me, “vultures” alone hypes the piece, tipping it toward melodrama or horror, while “turkey” mellows the concept out just enough to put in a sense of gritty everyday reality.
After writing the above paragraph, I looked up the difference between “Vulture” and “Turkey Vulture” to help me understand why this might be. According to the Audubon Society, there are “black vultures” and “turkey vultures,” turkey vultures being the more common. On some level, I think I understood this, and why I felt in reading the first line, I would be getting reality rather than melodrama. What else does this first sentence tell us? With the specific use of “turkey” and the specificity of “thermals,” I feel a confidence that this writer knows things, and I trust him. He is choosing his words with great care. I want to keep reading.
Then there is the image of birds of prey with “enormous wings” hunting for “heat-struck pets.” Again the author has worked a bit of magic. It is the pets who are in danger—do they have any chance of survival? The stakes are presented for the story and they feel high, yet still grounded in reality. Then we are given wasps “there to fuss and worry the dove.” We don’t know yet exactly what this story is going to mean in the end, but now we have a dove in contrast to the turkey vultures circling. The tension is ratcheted up because now we must worry not only about the pets, but this lovely dove.
We have a lyric opening to a story, high stakes proposed, as well as being engaged by tension created by the subliminal question, “What does this mean?” The next line, “It’s mostly quiet now,” brings pause to the story, before understands with the next line, that “Melissa left.” Ahhh, we meet the “dove.” There are two people in the story, the woman who has left and the man who is left behind:
“I’m sitting near the shrinking pool, skimmer pole across my lap, cooler at my feet, looking for snakes and frogs among the floating dead leaves.”
This carefully constructed sentence parallels the opening sentence, but now there is this man “looking for snakes and frogs” rather than turkey vultures seeking “heat-struck pets in parched backyards.” Now a correlation comes into play. Although the birds are preying on the creatures below to pick their bones, the man is lying in wait “to save” the creatures who “bob up to gulp the fiery air.” And this comes together in the last line, “Help me find a way to lure her back from the coast.” The careful placement of the word “lure” in this sentence brings with it a certain amount of discomfort. This word, every word, plays its part in this piece, suggesting not just a man whose wife has left him, but a man with a net, a man who believes he has the answer, a man presented to us in a way that suggests this is not a simple story. There are complications here. We do not know the right or wrong of her leaving and therefore, we are left with something more thought-provoking, something that lingers. Ambiguity occurs at the end of these stories, but only at the end.
Both authors have taken great care to give readers specific concrete details throughout so we as readers are anchored in the stories. They have both used words as if those words cost about $1000 each. Thank you, Barry Basden and Sherrie Flick for allowing me to use your excellent work as examples!
Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume), and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.