ABCs of Flash Writing: A is for Arc

Posted by on Apr 18, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: A is for Arc

For sale: baby shoes, never worn. This famous six-word flash fiction has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although that is a literary legend. Like Hemingway’s best short fiction, however, this classic super-short is intriguing—even haunting—and ambiguous (see these interpretations by several everyday readers). Nonetheless, it contains the primary feature that distinguishes flash fiction from prose poem: a narrative arc.

Protagonist-conflict-resolution is the basic narrative arc. Flash fiction can scramble the arc, or keep it in shadow, but cannot abandon it (unlike a prose poem, which exists in its own dreamscape). In For sale: baby shoes, never worn the protagonist is implied by an object, baby shoes. Whether a bereaved parent or a desperate thief, the protagonist is there, almost living and breathing, as in all effective and affective fiction. The conflict—revealed in the last two words—is the death or miscarriage of a baby. (Unless the protagonist is a desperate but clever thief who stole the baby shoes from a store—just sayin’.) The resolution is in the first two words: For sale. That this common advertising phrase is used to suggest both terrible poverty and unbearable loss is the most brilliant touch in the piece.

Now let’s play with this super-short. Would it be as effective/affective if written in another way?

Baby shoes for sale: never worn.  Not bad, but without the impact of the original. Like the original, it withholds the conflict until the end—“never worn” hits the reader like a gut punch. But by placing the resolution (“for sale”) in the middle, and leading with the implied protagonist (“baby shoes”), this version lessens the poignancy of both. When the original writer leads with “for sale,” h/she is playing a wonderful trick on the reader: turning an innocuous ad into a tragic story.

Never worn baby shoes: for sale. This inversion shatters the narrative arc, and takes all the momentum out of this super-short. The prose becomes prosaic—like the advertisement the original pretends to be, before the reader absorbs the shock of the real (imagined) story within. It also demonstrates how important punctuation is to flash fiction. When the colon is placed after “for sale” it is a vital (OK, I can’t resist—pregnant) pause, like the stillness in the air just before a storm. When it follows “baby shoes,” it becomes dull, negligible.

Let’s examine how the narrative arc of protagonist-conflict-resolution works in a flash fiction that is 25 words or under. J. Matthew Zoss’s “Houston, We Have a Problem” appeared in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W.W. Norton & Co., 2010).

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

I’m sorry, but there’s not enough air in here for everyone. I’ll tell them you were a hero.

One of the first things to notice is that Zoss’s title—a contemporary phrase almost as well-known as “for sale”—is an essential part of his flash fiction, lengthening it from 18 words to 23 words. Like “for sale,” this is both set-up and good writer’s trick. The laconic “Houston, we have a problem” has been used not only by NASA astronauts in the face of space flight disaster (in real life and in the movies) but has entered general usage, to describe—sometimes humorously—any kind of problem.

Zoss uses the phrase in the traditional way. His story has two protagonists (or a protagonist and an antagonist), the speaker—implied as the captain—who begins with “I’m sorry, but” and the “you” who is to become—willingly or not—a sacrificial “hero.” “Hero” also serves as the ironic close to the resolution to the conflict: “there’s not enough air in here for everyone.”

Would “Houston, We Have a Problem” work as well if Zoss cut the story’s opening three words?

There’s not enough air in here for everyone. I’ll tell them you were a hero.

I don’t think so. Without the speaker’s apology—ironic or sincere—the story loses its narrative propulsion. (Captain has to make a tough decision, Red Shirt. He’s sorry, but he’ll tell them you were a hero.)

Now, what if we remove “I’ll tell them” from the story?

I’m sorry, but there’s not enough air in here for everyone. You’re a hero.

Nope. Direct address implies that the decision to sacrifice himself is Red Shirt’s, not the captain’s. “I’ll tell them” establishes the speaker’s supremacy and the helplessness of the victim known only as “you”—who may be (probably is) thinking—What the hell? Why me?—more horrified than consoled by the speaker’s promise of fabled military glory, of becoming “a hero.” This terse but rich flash fiction would be incomplete without it.

This brings me full circle to the similarities between flash fiction and prose poetry. Every word counts—just as every piece of punctuation counts, as mentioned earlier. When writing in either genre, I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s retort (as reported by Boswell) to accusations that Johnson had written the final prison sermon for his ill-fated minister friend William Dodd, executed for forgery. Johnson’s quip has almost the narrative arc of a good flash fiction:

Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Angele Ellis is author of a hybrid valentine to her adopted city, Under the Kaufmann’s Clock: Fiction, Poems, and Photographs of Pittsburgh, with photos by Rebecca Clever (Six Gallery Press); Spared (A Main Street Rag Editors’ Choice Chapbook), and Arab on Radar (Six Gallery), whose poems won her a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She is a contributing editor to Al Jadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts.


Whatcha doing right now? Send your writing and artwork to Spry. We are currently considering all five genres for our next issue. Submit here.