ABCs of Flash Writing: T is for Time

Posted by on May 7, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: T is for Time

Time necessitates brutality in flash fiction and flash non-fiction. In crafting with brevity, each hatch mark on the timeline must be made with a scalpel.

And it hurts.

In the process of distilling a complete narrative into the compressed time frame of flash, the clever turns, deep characterizations and symbolic scene-setting all take wounds. This process transforms us soft-hearted writers to Lady Macbeths, wringing our hands above bloody results and hoping the end result is worth it. Flash fiction and flash creative non-fiction require violence, the willingness to slash and kill what we hold dear.

The best flash pieces time travel, collapsing lifetimes into a page and working backwards as well as forwards. But in order to journey, the story must be cut into increments that can bloody a writer a well as the text.

Flash fiction and creative non-fiction is time travel, allowing one moment to suggest a lifetime. The magic comes from a manipulation of time in just one burst.

As the bastard child of poetry and short stories, flash fiction uses its form to shape content. Every flash piece is a ticking clock, but one attached to an explosive so that each moment of progress moves towards the final illumination.

In flash fiction and non-fiction, words aren’t wasted – flash is the opposite of Charles Dickens being paid for volume. The work careens towards the ending, towards its own “time’s up” moment. That ending has to convey what is larger than the one page of writing, larger than the small conversational exchange, more important than whatever happened in brevity. Time has to keep going.

Although flash’s limited time doesn’t allow for endless metaphors, the length itself creates one. The brevity of the interaction or of the moment in the flash piece metaphorically substitutes one moment for a lifetime.

In John Collier’s “The Chaser”, first published in The New Yorker, a young man named Alan shops for a love potion to sway the object of his obsession. This piece’s timeline allows no glimpse into Alan’s relationship except for the fact that he’s in a potion shop and mentions the woman loves parties, but these hints establish the essentials from time before the story’s present moment.

In the potion shop, the old man proprietor describes an elixir costing five thousand dollars for a single drop, which will kill someone without a trace.

But Alan doesn’t want poison – our hero wants love.

The story rushes towards its ending where the old man sells the love potion for a dollar, and says “au revoir” in full expectation of seeing Alan again. At that moment, Collier collapses time, causing the reader to reflect back on the five thousand dollar potion, while simultaneously hurtling forward into all that will soon result from the unnamed woman’s obsessive love. Collier leaves the reader with the old man’s assurance that Alan will be back for the antidote to the potion he just purchased, when the blush of love turns to its oppression. In recording a conversation of just a few exchanges, “The Chaser” suggests both one man’s past and inevitable future, as well as love’s timeless issues.

Time presses on life and exerts a similar pressure on narrative. Flash fiction and non-fiction recognizes just this.

To appreciate the necessary violence of flash, I first had to write a tremendously long and way-too-sad book. After an intense experience where my mom went crazy and died in my home, I wrote a long, long (long!) memoir about her battle with brain cancer. With exacting precision, I captured detail after detail. I lavished attention upon medical jargon, characterization of nurses and the lingering emotional states of everyone involved. I described her hair loss strand by strand.

As a whole, the piece took up far too much time, too much space and too much emotion. I put the meandering memoir aside. A year ago, I returned to the hefty work with a few new ideas about time and a willingness to shed blood.

I carved three flash pieces from the whole unwieldy book, and published them all.

When transforming longer works into flash pieces, the slop bucket anesthetizes. Creating a slop bucket file of cut passages saves the scraps, perhaps to be sewn into a new narrative someday, or perhaps just to have a more intentional limbo. Make a slop bucket file and drop everything in there. This process eases the pain, and who knows — maybe another moment in time can be saved from the slop later. I felt better not deleting the pages needing to be cut from my flash creative non-fiction. Asking myself what moments captured the essential clarified just how much (ahem – approximately one hundred thousand words) could go into the slop.

Flash carves sharp moments from the long and unwieldy, and imposes edges onto the soft tentacles of long drafts. When the writer boils time down to that essential drop, the moment must echo. That characterization or that conversation has to be distilled, into just one drop of potion reframing the past and shifting the future.

As writers, we have to be brutal, with ourselves for the discipline, with our loved ones for all our distractions, and with our writing to jettison the very sentences we made from our sweat. William Faulkner advised writers to kill your darlings, and flash fiction forces you to take Faulkner’s advice. Perhaps the biggest darling of all is the luxurious expanse of narrative time. In stories and novels, chronologies push well beyond the moments at hand, and navigate a wide expanse of metaphor and plot.

Not in flash.

Here, scalpel in hand, we shave off what we labored to create, bloodying our own best efforts so that we’re left with just one moment. Collapsing time takes your darlings with it, the descriptions of the weather forecasting events, the conversations unspooling backstory, the sly sidelong glances that raise key suspicions.

Be brave.

Flash writing is a crime scene. But with the taped outline and few clues visible, a clever reader can solve the whole damn thing. The generosity of time is one of those darlings of which Faulkner warned, one that can be slashed down to just its beating bloody heart.

Time’s up. Grab the scalpel.

Kristie Betts Letter‘s poetry collection Under-Worldly (Editorial L’Aleph 2017) examines what lies beneath using what Cowboy Jamboree describes as “fantastic images of the subterranean grit.” The Massachusetts Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, Washington Square, Passages North, Pangolin Papers, and The Southern Humanities Review featured her writing and Best American Short Fictions has lauded itShe’s also earned several teaching awards in Colorado and was a 2017 featured writer at the Montana Book Festival. For more please visit