story arc


by Townsend Walker

Townsend WalkerThe wind ponies of my mind take me to places I’ve never been. They race across plains of thought heedless of what they’ve never seen.

And a process begins, a thought, often an opening line, a search for a next line, a following line. A character may appear, or not. Keep writing. A location or event fully described, when that, then a person will appear to populate it, move around in it.

Flash is an experiment. What comes of it?

Capture an emotion—Charlie’s Life, MuDJoB

Charlie was a mean lad. Charlie was a mad lad. Charlie was rad bad. Charlie clubbed his cousin, then his aunt.

“Jail or Army, lad?”

Charlie got to go war. Charlie got to kill and maim.

Charlie got a medal. Charlie was a hero. Charlie was the man. Charlie was the man. Charlie got to come home.

Charlie got a wife, don’t know why. Charlie clubbed again, don’t know who.

This is not a life.

Charlie?

Develop a Plot—The Gun Wasn’t Hers, Flash Frontier

She hadn’t wanted it, but there it was, on the seat beside her. For your protection, they’d said.

She was driving I-90: Seattle to Chicago, beat-up Beetle. Running a package out for this guy she knew. A delicate instrument,—didn’t trust UPS. The pay was good and she was between gigs. Lots of empty country out there, they’d said. True. Miles of nothing but dirt and sky flying by.

Out past Billings, a rock hit the windshield. Shattered it. She jerked at the wheel, nearly drove off the road. Where the hell did that come from? She slowed the car to a stop and sat til her breathing got down to near normal. The sun caught hold of the edges of exploded glass, turning her windshield into a web of rainbow colors.

In the rearview, she saw something move—back alongside the road, by the loose rocks. Her stomach lurched. Grabbing the gun, she found the safety, clicked it off, willed her legs out of the car, onto the pavement. She walked down the road, scanning the horizon, hair whipping around her eyes.

But it wasn’t there anymore. It was behind her.

Play with dialogue—Overheard, Apocrypha and Abstractions

Probably wasn’t anything could be done about it.

You did everything you could.

When was it? A month ago we talked to him.

Given the circumstances, inevitable.

With what he was mixed up in.

Bound to happen, sooner or later.

Che sera, sera.

But to end up there.

I don’t know what else I could have done.

Did you hear about that thing a couple days earlier?

Why on earth would anyone . . .?

You know, it’s really been hard on Sally.

But she’s been a trooper though it all.

Did the police have to give out so much detail?

Hey, over by the pillar, is that her? Black hat.

These days . . . .

What do you think happens next?

There’ll be questions.

They talked to you yet?

Blonde in the blue dress by the window?

Another one?

By the way, who found him?

They’re not saying.

Think this will change anything?

Nah.

You see anything to drink around here?

 

Open a larger story—A Bottle in the Alley, Blink Ink

A broken bottle, jagged edges refract street light, emerald stripes on a gray lump, on patent leather boots. The figure in boots, now in white orthopedic shoes, walks into a Park Avenue apartment.

“Good morning Miss Chaney. A good night?” the doorman says.

“Profitable, very profitable.”

Strange, for a nurse to put it that way.

A small complete story—Swan Lake, Slice

The mountain of dirty crusted snow was turning to slush. Pedestrians huddled next to buildings to avoid being splashed by careening cars. A bus rumbled to its stop, five feet from the curb, five feet filled with Arctic ice melt. The door opened. A short man in a long, seen-better-days coat peered out, small blue eyes blinking. He moved cat-like to the bottom step. Passers-by saw his turmoil–the near certainty of an ice bath, the slim chance of safety on the sidewalk. He hesitated. Was he going to try? He peered across the chasm, bent his knees, rose on his toes, gracefully arced in a grand jeté, and finished with a delicate landing. The muffled beat of mittens greeted his performance. He bowed deeply. His audience moved on, carrying that balletic movement with them. That touch of theatrical surprise that softens the soul.

____________

Townsend Walker is a writer living in San Francisco. During a career in finance he published books on foreign exchange, derivatives, and portfolio management. His short fiction has been published in over sixty literary journals and included in seven anthologies. A novella, La Ronde, will be published by Truth Serum Press in Fall 2015. Awards: first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest, two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series, Hollywood. Educated at Stanford (creative writing and economics), NYU (economics and anthropology) and Georgetown (economics and political science). Website: www.townsendwalker.com.

 

by Erin Entrada Kelly

Erin Kelly

Choosing the right words to tell a story is an art, and the greatest artists make it seem effortless.

Let’s face it: If you want to learn how to build a boat, you have to study the shipbuilders. So let’s take a look at a successful piece of flash—Kenneth Gagnon’s Liar—and find out what made this story strong enough to win the highly competitive 2013 Best of the Net prize for fiction.

First, the opening paragraph:

I think things went south because I was a habitual liar, especially about the story of how we met. I have an active imagination. I considered it charming, and for a time – a long time – so did you.

Gagnon doesn’t waste any time. (You can’t waste time in flash, after all). He tells us right away that things went south and gives us boatloads of information about himself and his relationship, in only three sentences.

When I balanced Jonathan on my knee in the glow from the tyrannosaurus lamp, for instance, I told him I leapt four hundred feet in the air to catch you as you plummeted from the whitest, softest cloud. In light emanating from the mouth of the fiercest of all dinosaurs, he asked: Was mom an angel?

Absolutely. And unbelievably clumsy.

Again, a ton of information. They have a small child, Jonathan. And while the narrator might be a “habitual liar,” his lies aren’t of the evil variety. He’s likable, sympathetic. This is important, because it gives the rest of the story unique resonation.

As the 500-word story unfolds, we travel with the couple to a company Christmas party, where the narrator tells his wife’s boss the real story (or maybe-real-story—nod to the unreliable narrator) of how they met. This clever thread unites the playful-kid scene with the work-party scene.

The narrator then senses tension in the air and perceives that his wife is trading side-glances with one of her co-workers, “a Greek with eyebrows and hair so thick they looked painted.” His suspicions escalate on the ride home.

I regarded the headlight-lit, winding road, certain now we were bound for a shadowy, unexplored country. I pictured jaguars and deep green vines.

Metaphors are tricky. If you try too hard, they come off cheesy and overworked. If you use them too often, it’s gimmicky. And if you sacrifice them altogether, you rob yourself of an effective prose technique. Gagnon’s smart. He threads “shadowy, unexplored country” with a follow-up metaphor of “jaguars and deep green vines.” This adds a distinct layer of richness to Gagnon’s prose. It’s also interesting how he embeds the word “now.” Consider how it changes the context of his sentence when the word “now” is removed.

I regarded the headlight-lit, winding road, certain we were bound …

This is an example of how one word makes a world of difference, even if it’s not immediately apparent (remember: good writers make it look easy). The word “now” tells us that there is finality in the narrator’s thought process—that he had suspicions that were validated at that moment. Before that moment, he was uncertain. But he is certain now.

Gagnon continues with I was drunk at the helm, in which the word “drunk” could have double meaning. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it works.

Then this perfectly placed, eloquent metaphor:

I saw in your eyes the cold ocean’s floor, and the Greek there, swimming ghostly amongst a hundred faceless others.

So, here is a man who is suspicious of his wife. But remember—we like him. When we’re introduced to the narrator, he is bouncing his son on his knee and telling him a whimsical story about his mother being an angel. At the company party, he makes jokes with the company COO and attempts to kid around with his wife. Imagine how different the story would be if our narrator were abusive, or an alcoholic, or a philanderer.

In 500 words, Gagnon has crafted an eloquent piece of fiction with a clear story arc and textured, three-dimensional characters. Not an easy task, but he makes it look effortless. That’s when you know it’s good.

Read Liar, by Kenneth Gagnon at Drunk Monkeys.

____________

Erin Entrada Kelly has published more than 30 short stories and essays in publications worldwide. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Kelly was a 2011 Martha’s Vineyard Writer in Residence and a finalist for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel BLACKBIRD FLY will be released by HarperCollins/Greenwillow next month. She is also the author of HER NAME WAS FIDELA, a novella-length collection of flash fiction. Learn more at www.erinentradakelly.com.

 

By J. Chris Lawrence

Getting published is a tough business that isn’t for the timid or insecure. While Every Day Fiction’s openness to a variety of genres and daily publishing schedule leave a lot of room for well written stories to have their chance, quite a few still fall short due to common and fixable issues. Like any publication, there are certain steps writers can follow to increase their odds, and one of the keys to success is simply being prepared.

Here are my 5 tips for getting published by Every Day Fiction magazine.

Tip #1. Know Your Publication

Every publication is different, but all of them expect writers to read and respect their guidelines.

Like most flash markets, EDF takes a firm position on word count and is upfront about this. Even if your story is amazing, it will have to fit this very simple rule, yet countless submissions nevertheless find rejection for this misstep.

The importance of following rules can’t be stressed enough. Attempting to sidestep them reflects poorly on writers: it shows they either don’t respect the publication’s standards or lack professionalism.

Another leading cause for swift rejections is submitting a previously published story. This does include your own blog, even if it doesn’t have many followers.

The importance of following rules can’t be stressed enough. Attempting to sidestep them reflects poorly on writers: it shows they either don’t respect the publication’s standards or lack professionalism. But many of these issues can also be accidentally overlooked as well, so before submitting, give the guidelines a second read and stick to them. It might just save your story.

Tip #2. Break from tropes

People love to hate Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga.  Many die-hards scoff at her glittery vampires, but love it or hate it, it’s undeniably original, and while classic stories of traditional vampires can thrive (see Anne Rice, for example), the odds of them finding publication are lower than something editors have never seen before.

The key isn’t to avoid common themes, it’s to try to break from the mold and look at them in a different way. EDF is always open to creative takes on classic staples. In May, 2011, Rich Matrunick’s “The Pale Farmer” (http://www.everydayfiction.com/the-pale-farmer-by-rich-matrunick/) gave a chilling tale of a Vampire struggling to overcome his addiction to blood. For religious/end of the world content, Sarah L. Byrne’s “And Though Worms Destroy” (http://www.everydayfiction.com/and-though-worms-destroy-by-sarah-l-byrne/) broke new ground by showing a different side to the story. Likewise, Brock Adams explored one man’s struggle to return to normal life after a zombie apocalypse is contained in “The Former King of Fort Wal-Mart” (http://www.everydayfiction.com/the-former-king-of-fort-wal-mart-by-brock-adams/).

The key isn’t to avoid common themes, it’s to try to break from the mold and look at them in a different way.

When submitting to EDF, ask yourself what’s fresh about your material. If the story is strong enough, overused creature features can certainly still make it, but taking it that extra step into the unknown will make it stand out in a crowd.

Tip #3. Polish Your Prose

A strong story concept isn’t always enough; sometimes stirring works get rejected simply for prose alone. The good news is writing is a craft, and like all crafts, there are tricks of the trade that can help polish your work.

First, try getting a couple of beta readers to comment on your story. This only works if they are going to be honest and constructive (no, Mom doesn’t count). Often a different set of eyes can find plot holes, typos, or other errors that we writers tend to miss.

A fresh outlook helps us view our work beyond fresh-story blinders.

You can also try reading your story aloud or have someone else read it to you. This gives you a strong sense of how it sounds outside of your head, and more importantly, inside the reader’s.

Another rule of thumb is to simply give it time. Once the story is finished, put it away for a week or so. Let it settle, then go back and read it again. A fresh outlook helps us view our work beyond fresh-story blinders.

As a flash and web publication, EDF looks for prose that reads well for the screen and is appealing to its readership. It’s always best to keep your paragraphs sparse and clean, and while stylish prose is good, never lose sight of what’s most important–the story.

Tip #4. Themes and Arcs and Growth, Oh My

A theme is the underlying meaning or abstract concept behind your plot. This is what you are trying to say, the ultimate point of the story. Knowing this can help you stay on track. Yet, a theme is nothing without an arc–the basic structure of storytelling: the beginning, middle and end.

In flash, certain parts of the plot can and should be implied, but without a complete arc, you have a vignette at best. Most arcs thrive on the growth of a certain aspect, such as a character learning something or changing in some way. But all arcs have a very clear point of climax.

Before submitting your story, give it another glance. Ask yourself, is the tension clear, and is the central conflict being resolved? Is the message being conveyed? Does anything significant happen or change in some way? These are, perhaps, the most important aspects of a story. Many submissions that are turned away from EDF lack some or all of these important building blocks of fiction, because without them, you don’t have a complete story.

Tip #5.  Watch Your Ending

Often, stories come through EDF’s slush that are very intriguing, but die quickly due to their final lines. The ending is paramount: it’s the final note where all threads converge. Still, while it’s necessary to get it right, it’s also easy to get it wrong.

A common issue I’ve seen is the rushed ending. Whether it’s because the piece simply isn’t meant for a flash venue or the writer hasn’t paced the story well enough to fit the confines, a rushed ending can kill a story. Keep in mind the cadence of your plot as you go, and make sure it comes to a smooth close.

Twist endings are always a pleasure, but they can be difficult to pull off. A good twist story should never mislead the reader or leave them feeling tricked. Instead, it should be littered with clues and foreshadowing, so after finishing the piece, the reader can look back at it and think, “How did I miss that?”

Keep in mind the cadence of your plot as you go, and make sure it comes to a smooth close.

When doing comedy, be wary of the punchline ending. These aren’t stories so much as extended jokes. Sure, good comedy can end in a punchline, but if the entire piece revolves around that single jest, it probably won’t make it into EDF, or most other publications for that matter.

Finally, never let your story cop out. Be very cautious of using deus ex machina to resolve conflicts. Ending a story as just being a dream, or bringing in outside elements with the sole value of resolving the plot will likely lead to rejection. This is also a kind of cheat and the reader will notice. Let the elements of your story resolve their own conflicts.

While nothing here can guarantee you an acceptance letter, following these basic tips can certainly improve the odds of your story finding a home in the annals of Every Day Fiction magazine.

____________________________

Born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence spent much of his life traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. Most recently, he’s found himself in Georgia, where he spends his days reading slush for Every Day Fiction magazine, striving to improve his craft, and wrangling his sons, Michael and Ayden. You can find more of Chris’s fiction online at www.jchrislawrence.com.

Matthew Salessesby Matthew Salesses

Talking about a story of fewer than 1000, or 500, or 300 words, means by nature talking about restraint.

I am a firm believer in the idea that limits increase creativity rather than restrict it. Perhaps this is what attracts me to the very short form: flash fiction or prose poetry or sudden fiction or whatever you want to call it. When I am working on a flash project, I like to give myself restraints. I wrote my chapbook, Our Island of Epidemics, by trying to write in first-person plural, which I had never done before. The epidemics themselves were restrictions, as I fit the stories to the rules of diseases like unrequited love or unstoppably growing hearts or memory loss.

My new book is a novel in flash fiction, made up of 115 mini-chapters, called I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying. I wrote it with the following restraints: each chapter could not be longer than a page, each chapter had to include an object chosen at random beforehand, and each sentence should try to include a “turn.” I kept these rules loosely. I considered a “turn” the point where a sentence reveals something new, or moves the story in a new direction, or flips something earlier in the sentence on its head.

For example, a sentence might begin with a man unsure whether the boy beside him is his biological son, and end with the man feeling sympathy for the boy’s understanding of the ocean. That is a turn in a very short story, to me. When I was working on the novel at length, I would write a chapter or two each day, giving myself objects from around the house to work with: a bed, a glove, a hairband, a book jacket, a dinosaur toy. Sometimes these objects made it into the final drafts, and sometimes not.

In one of my many attempts to make ends meet, I teach a flash fiction course in which I have students write a story a week based on prompts. I often tell them that one thing a story does not make, but two or three things a story can make—part of the movement of a very short story is the connection drawn between seemingly disparate objects or characters: a father, a boy, the ocean, dead starfish. If we connect dots that appear at odds, we’re moving the reader from one place or idea to another across a large metaphysical space: we’re creating or at least indicating that there is an arc, an underlying shape.

I read about a study once in which people were forced to look at a drawing that had been left unfinished; they wanted more than anything to complete it. As long as the reader can see that there is somewhere to go, he will fill in the missing path.

I give my students prompts each week that often involve leaving much of the story out: write a list that reveals a character, write a story composed entirely of facts, write a scene with a MacGuffin—an object that is never revealed to the reader. The second prompt, the story made of facts, gets especially interesting results. The example story I give was published in NANO Fiction: “On Stammering,” in which the narrator states a number of facts about stammering that slowly expose his personal relation to those facts. The students who stick closely to the prompt learn the most from it: writing only one type of sentence makes them think harder about how to create a story between the lines. I save this prompt for a certain point in the course, when I think that they are ready for that struggle.

Talking about a story of fewer than 1000, or 500, or 300 words, means by nature talking about restraint. Restraint must be exercised in the diction, the imagery, the characterization, the plot. Everything needs to work on multiple levels. Everything needs to be important. This is usually why students resist the restraints, at first. They think they need more freedom, more tools, in order to be precise. But it is the scene in a movie where the spy is locked up that we learn what kind of hero he is. Is he a planner; is he an improviser; is he a traitor? We must have at hand more than a simple trick to get us out; the best escape is more than an escape, it’s an adaptation. You only have one leg and there is a wide sea to swim across and no food except endless fish? That is when you find your story has always been a mermaid.

____________________________________

 

Matthew Salesses is a staff/faculty assistant at Harvard Kennedy School of Government working for the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy and a widely published young author. He also writes a column for the new online magazine The Good Men Project about being a new father. His novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is divided into small, easily digestible bits of flash fiction.


by Erin Entrada Kelly

Years ago I wrote a short story that received a resounding chorus of identical feedback from editors. The feedback went something like this: ‘Great story, but there’s no resolution’ and/or ‘This is great—but where’s the rest?’ I sat down with the story again, poised with a rewrite pen, and racked my brain for some kind of ending. After a while, I put it in a drawer and let it be. I couldn’t figure out an ending because there was no clear resolution. Life is unresolved sometimes, I thought. Life doesn’t tie itself up in pretty little bows.

It took me a while to appreciate that one of the reasons people enjoy literature—flash or otherwise—is because it allows us to escape out of our own unresolved, un-bow-tied situations. We want something better for the characters we acquaint ourselves with; we want something to change for them, or at least for the story, and we’ll take these changes for better or worse. It doesn’t have to be happily-ever-after, but it has to be something.

That’s it, really. That’s what makes an ending. Something needs to change. The situation, the person(s), the emotional quotient of the character(s). Things won’t always end well for the characters we write, but we know that it’s ended when something about the story becomes something else. As readers, we want to experience someone else’s experience, and that means going through all the peaks and valleys. The valleys aren’t as interesting without the peaks and vice versa. Just as in real life. If life were a plateau, how would we know how it feels to walk uphill or slide downhill?

So how do you know when you’ve reached the end? How do you know if the ending works? You walk the path of your story. When you reach the end, you turn around and stare back at the beginning. If you see a flat horizon, then you need to keep walking.

______________________________________________

Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel is forthcoming from HarperCollins’ Greenwillow Books. She currently works at Swarthmore College and is represented by the Jenks Agency. Read more at www.erinentradakelly.com. Find her on Twitter here.

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