ABCs of Flash Writing: O is for Ordinary Moments

Posted by on May 2, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: O is for Ordinary Moments

Any writer who’s dabbled in flash will tell you that it’s a challenging form—poets who are looking to try their hand at prose often start with flash, because the brevity of the medium lends itself to poetic conventions without seeming insurmountable. Seasoned prose writers often employ flash as a means of sharpening their skills—after all, restraint is key in successful flash. There’s a saying in writing workshops: Sometimes to make your world bigger, you’ve got to tighten its borders. Most flash fiction is restrictive in its word count—tending to cap word counts at 500, 750, or 1k. The real challenge of flash fiction is making sure that every word serves a purpose. With considerably less space to create compelling, meaningful characterizations, there isn’t room for long descriptions or action that doesn’t propel the narrative forward. You must maximize the punch of every word; each choice must convey as much meaning as possible. Ordinary details are an effective way of doing exactly that: You’ve heard the sayings, God is in the details, and the devil’s in the details. Both can be true.

Take for instance what’s arguably the most effective short story, written by Hemingway. The entirety of the story is “written” in negative space—the reader’s own imagination. Just six words in exactly the right order, hinging upon two ordinary details: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” The entire narrative pivots on just two words: baby and never. How much different would the narrative be if Hemingway had written: “For sale. Dancing shoes. Never worn.” or “For sale. Military boots. Worn once.”? In tweaking details ever-so-slightly, three totally different narratives are born.

But how do you achieve this sort of significance? Write a first draft—you can modify details once you know the story you want to tell. Look at your nouns. See what words can benefit from specificity—do you use the word flowers? Try naming a specific flower—ultimately, you don’t know who your audience will be, or what kind of flower they’ll envision when they’re reading. With that in mind, assign meaning through symbolism and specificity. Different colored roses have contradictory associations: white roses are often associated with purity or chastity, while red roses are symbolic of passion, or at times, loss. Calla lilies and daffodils are both associated with death, but calla lilies also represent passion, while daffodils are symbolic of rebirth. Use specificity to convey a sense of place: blue bells might situate your story in Texas, while cherry blossoms might place your story in Japan or the Pacific Northwest. A character who tends orchids might be coded as patient and nurturing; daisies evoke the sense of laidback joy. Readers may think of Van Gogh if you write sunflowers into your work. The ordinary detail is like a tiny T.A.R.D.I.S.— bigger on the reader’s interiority than it looks on the page. Is there a tree in your story? An oak is not a pine is not a birch is not a redwood—each tree has a specific look, place, and association, which you as the writer can use as shorthand. In using intentional, thoughtful details, you trick the reader into the “heavy lifting” of scene-setting and characterization: everything conveyed in ordinary details are things you don’t have to describe, unless additional description moves the narrative forward. You don’t have to poetically describe cherry blossoms, but by naming them cherry blossoms, you’ve alerted the reader that the scene is awash in pink and white. You’ve communicated place—perhaps even season—color, and mood, all in just two words: cherry blossoms.

Writing mentors may urge you to keep descriptions universal or open-ended, staying away from brand names (For posterity! they say). In modern writing, however, effective use of branding is an element worth considering, as these details can convey a wealth of information, particularly if you’re incorporating issues of class or a specific time into your work, a way of imparting specificity and information in shorthand. What does a reader infer from a character whose drink of choice is Cabernet, versus a character who chooses Jack Daniels? A character who smokes Lucky Strikes is subconsciously coded as blue-collar or working class without additional information. Polaroid conjures a specific time in the past, as do VCRs, disk drives, or the Yellow Pages. If you mention shoes, specifying what kind or what condition creates a character the reader sees more vividly: what personality type do you associate with a character whose shoes are spit-shined patent leather, versus one whose work boots are scuffed and stained? What meaning might a reader assign to a character who uses a flip-phone—or rotary? —in a contemporary story? What might we deduce from a scene taking place in a Starbucks? Can a writer show gentrification through the names of stores—both the ones that close, and the ones that replace them? What do we know about a character who drives a 1987 Chrysler Le Baron, a character who takes public transportation, or a character on a bicycle? If a character is on the Metro or BART, the reader automatically understands the setting is urban, whereas a character in a beat-up Ford is more likely in a rural scene. What do we know about characters who live in apartments? Trailers? Family homes? Does your character work, or do you see them at their job? Each of these details can convey a wealth of information about their personality, socioeconomic status, or the place where they live.

Once you’ve outlined the arc of your narrative, revisit your work line by line to find opportunities to insert meaning, symbolism, or additional information through the intentional use of ordinary details. Bright verbs and expressive details make every word work double-time for fiction that flashes intense and electric as a bolt of lightning. If you’re skeptical how this might be done effectively, consider this: in just 1k words, I’ve conjured dozens of different narratives, characters, and scenes—all through ordinary details.

Allie Marini is a cross-genre writer holding degrees from both Antioch University of Los Angeles & New College of Florida. She was a 2018 Shitty Women in Literature nominee, and has been a finalist for Best of the Net and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her masthead credits include Lunch Ticket, Spry Literary Journal & Mojave River Review. She has published a number of chapbooks, including Pictures from the Center of The Universe (Paper Nautilus, winner of the Vella Prize) and Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide to Beasts of the Southern Wild (Hyacinth Girl Press, finalist for the SFPA’s Elgin Award) In addition to her work on the page, Allie was a member of Oakland’s 2017 National Slam Team. A native Floridian now freezing to death in the Bay Area, Allie writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Find her online.