Here’s one of the short essays I’ve been working on recently in a series about short story form. The first six,along with an introductory essay can be accessed via the link to ‘Writing about writing’:

Readings For Writers 12: Flash Fictions

Flash fiction is a relatively new kid on the block. It is often set at 500 words maximum or thereabouts, often at half that, or half that again. I have seen flash fiction competitions with maximum word counts as low as fifty words, as low as ten. Lower is feasible: I came. I saw. I conquered. I have seen definitions of the short story as being between one and twenty thousand words.

If Flash Fictions are not short stories, what are they? Are they super-short stories? The ones I’ve written have always striven to be complete stories, but many that I have read have seemed to be segments excised from larger pieces, turning points without backstory or future. Some have seemed to be mere snapshots, still photographs; frames taken from moving pictures. They still have the qualities of the short story though: brevity and narrative, even if the latter is largely implied. They have character, and setting, and theme. They have sequences, of words and images. What follows in each amends and is prejudiced by what has preceded it. They are, above all, almost certain to be read at a sitting.

I have encountered a couple of anthologies of them, and a few websites that specialise in them, but that not what could be considered a statistically representative sample. It’s awkward quoting from them as well, that brevity making quotations seem like infringement of copyright, so I have used three of my own attempts, to illustrate at least some of the possibilities of the form. I can quote those in full, and pick them apart, without anyone being offended.

The most structured of the three is the shortest, at 97 words:

100% Proof

 

 

And didn’t the Scots knock all the duty off whisky after they got independence?

And didn’t the Whitehall redcoats slap it right back on?

And wasn’t that the Solway smugglers back in business, after three centuries?

 

Now Willie Nobutt was a double-dealing, two-faced liar.

Didn’t he tip off the excise men?

 

Mind you, Logan Carr was no better.

Hadn’t he filled all but one of the bottles with tap-water, and that the one they drank on the beach to seal the deal?

 

Sure, and there’s no law against running tap-water, and no-one mentioned the Trade Descriptions Act.

 

In 100% Proof I was determined to get in a ‘full’ narrative, and so approached each line conscious of its function. What I ended up with appears to me to have something equivalent to chapters. The first three lines establish the location, in time and space, and set up the situation that enables the story to take place. Then two pairs of two lines each introduce the protagonists, tell us who they are, and what they are doing. The main narrative thread of the story is in these lines: action and reaction. The final two lines form a denouement of sorts, implying what is the outcome. There are repetitions of question and answer, and a ‘voice’ that poses the whole story as a sort of question. It appears on the Tuesday Shorts website under the pseudonym Culbin Forrest.

Icarus appeared in the 2006 SlingInk anthology, Jealousy. At 140 words this is actually a smaller story than 100% Proof, taking in a turning point in a disintegrating relationship. The setting could be almost anywhere, and at almost anytime, providing with its track, and boundary walls and woods and a main road, a series of metaphors for the journey the couple are making. Its mainspring (if it has one) must be the connection between the question at the end, and the title:

Icarus

 If I’d known how easy it would be I might have done it sooner, but if I’d done it sooner, it might not have been so easy. Besides, it was a spur of the moment decision, a heat of the moment decision. Not even a decision really. A reaction. It? Disappearing of course. We were in the lane, tight between limestone walls, tight between anger and hurt. She’d stopped me in my tracks, stopped me in that track. Something she’d said. I literally came to a standstill and watched her storm on up the hill. The curve of wall took her out of sight. That’s when I did it, turned away, walked back to the pine plantation beside the track, slipped in between the trees, headed downhill to the main road. I’ve wondered ever since when she first looked back.’

Because the location isn’t specific, other features of the story are emphasised at the beginning, specifically, the narrative point of view, and the ambience of the piece, with its twisted repetitions, conundrums almost. The location comes later, as part of the narrative action, and what happens may not be so important as its genesis, ‘not even a decision really. A reaction’ and its consequence: ‘I’ve wondered ever since.’

Don’t Tell Me The Story, was a runner up in the Spillink Ink Review micro-fiction competition, and is the longest of the three, at 288 words. It seems to me that it is also the least structured, or rather that it is the most like an ‘ordinary’ story. It was written without consciousness of word limits, just to be itself. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a circularity, I hope, which I won’t give away, and the title is about the story, and the story is about the title. There’s a link to it as well, at the left of the screen. Spillink Ink Review is currently offering a 100 word flash fiction competition (closing date 15th August). Why not have a pop at it?

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