ABCs of Flash Writing: Z is for Zero Structure

Posted by on May 13, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: Z is for Zero Structure

The first and only time I fired a gun was in my mosquito-ridden swamp of a backyard that is referred to by out-of-towners as the Meadowlands. A childhood friend of mine who, unlike me, had spent his childhood summers hunting everything from rabbits to deer, brought a few of us out to an abandoned nature preserve near our houses. He also brought along a Browning AB3 bolt-action rifle. I remember two things about that day – guns are loud, and, if anyone asks, I certainly didn’t put a hole in one of the water treatment plants across the river.

From the earliest days of our writing lives, we are taught that stories must have three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. That seems rather simple when it’s presented in such a nonchalant fashion, but many of the hang-ups that we face as authors comes from the fact that we lack one of those three crucial elements. No one wants to read a story without a beginning – try watching any HBO drama starting six episodes in. A middle offers readers the driving force of conflict, and allows us as authors to build elaborate plots or complex characters. And without an ending, an audience can be left staring, mouth agape at your final page or end credits, wondering if the latest writers’ strike was the cause to blame for such an unsatisfying ending, or if the author simply got bored and ran out of ideas. There’s an expectation that must be met, an accord that is unspoken between creator and audience.

Flash fiction tells this agreement of structure to shove off. It has zero structure (You try coming up with Z phrases). The responsibility of the flash fiction author is to create an immediate and lasting impact on the reader with a force that’s both undeniable yet nuanced enough to provoke an emotional response. Neil Leckman, horror author and anthologist, speaks to this when describing his views on the genre: “I consider whoever my words land on to be my target, that’s why I like flash fiction. It’s a lot like using a shotgun.” Wonder why that stuck. With such a short piece, the author can, in many ways, begin where they please, and rely on the strength of their prose to carry the deeper intent behind their words. The simplicity with which many flash fiction authors write can shine without the need to delve into great and complicated descriptions and plot developments.

In traditional narratives, one action must directly correlate to another, which in turns spirals into a full story, and somewhere three-hundred pages later, the overworked detective has solved the murder only to find that it was his partner’s doing all along. Flash fiction shows us the intensity of a singular moment and allows us to focus on that one image and all that comes with it. There is a clearness in the images and stories that flash provides, resonating long after the words have disappeared back into the folds of the text. The beauty of the words themselves can get lost among the white noise of exposition, dialogue, description, and character. Flash fiction, with its lack of defined rules, offers us a sense of freedom in its limitations. We can only write so much, that it forces us to pick and choose only the best and most sensible words for what we hope to convey.

As writers, this is what we strive for. We search for the strongest combination of words that brings us close to whatever ideal image we hold in our hearts and minds. Somewhere deep down, we know that perfection is impossible, so we struggle and often vomit all over our pages in the hopes that somewhere amid the watered-down, literary bile are the words we’ve been searching for all along. Here, again, flash fiction’s zero structure proves just how beneficial it can be to a writer’s process. How can anyone possibly get across the pain that comes with the loss of a loved one, or the joy of conquering one’s fears, when they’re only allowed a handful of words? That is the beauty of flash fiction. Restrictions are liberating when they grind out the strongest prose.

So when we go to write flash, there must be a moment where the traditional rules of storytelling vanish. Instead of a story, we must consider a scene or a moment that burns with such vibrancy that it can exist on its own. Rather than building up to a climax, we are both forced to and allowed to whittle down and shave a singular idea until it becomes impossible to deny that it is indeed prose. Flash does not need to have a beginning, middle, and end, nor does it have to be any of those. It can stand apart from all the rest, sharpened to such a degree that it can excise itself from our preconceived notions of fiction and tell just as powerful a story.

It cracks just as loud as a rifle in the Meadowlands, echoing out over the marshes.

Sean Buckley is a 26 year-old writer from Secaucus, New Jersey and 2016 graduate of the Fairfield University MFA program. He is predominantly a screenwriter, having written five feature films and three television pilots. His screenplays have won the Iconic Character Fellowship Award, have reached the finals of the Miami International Sci-Fi Film Festival and the Sydney International Sci-Fi & Fantasy Film Festival, as well as the semifinals of the Cynosure Screenwriting Contest and the quarterfinals of the Austin Film Festival, the Final Draft Big Break contest, and the PAGE International Screenwriting Contest. He has also written two novels, and several flash fiction pieces which have been featured in the Mad Scientist Journal and the Louisberg Literary Journal.