Writer's Digest, November 2005
By Gina Ochsner
When I was six, my father took me to watch a soccer game. I don't remember much about the team we cheered, nor can I recall who won or lost, because the memory of that day has dissolved into a single bright point that's risen like a blister. At halftime, a man climbed over the concrete barriers separating the fans from the players and streaked across the field, completely nude, screaming with what sounded like wild joy. The referee whistled and waved his arms. The announcer commented on his running form. "And there he goes, ladies and gentlemen, our resident flasher!"
The image of the man's rear end—white as the backside of a fleeing deer—has stuck in my memory like gum to the cat, and I suspect that through the childhood years I looked for meaning in that incident. I contemplated the words "flash," "streak," "bolt." And then one day I stood at the shelves of a bookstore, running my finger along the spines of new books, when I came across an anthology of short fiction. To be precise, it was a flash-fiction anthology. After reading just a few of the stories, some of them two or three pages long or shorter, I was reminded of that man on the soccer field, buck naked and never happier, mad-dashing for the end zone. These stories were pure, naked narrative. Gone was the weight of extra clothing, the artifice of story predictably rendered scene by scene and padded with flashback and long descriptions of setting. Gone was the mandatory moment of character revelation, of epiphany. Gone was the excess of purple prose.
Since that time, similar anthologies have appeared on those same bookstore shelves. Some call themselves sudden fiction. Still others are flash fiction. Others are titled short short stories. But whatever you call these pieces, they pack a wallop and are taking the literary scene by storm. A quick perusal of just about any literary journal will likely feature a flash or a short short, and contests specifically designed for sudden fiction are springing up like mushrooms after a solid June rain. Each year, The Southeast Review hosts the World's Best Short Short Story Contest. Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, and Writer's Digest (to name just a few) host similar contests.
And while enthusiasts of the form may not be able to agree on what to call these kinds of stories—or if they even are stories—most editors and writers in the form agree that the sudden story is a separate and distinct beast in the animal kingdom of fiction. Some flash fiction exhibits discernible characteristics of both poetry and prose. And its brevity visually distinguishes the flash story from its leggier cousin, the short story. Flash fiction is, as editors Robert Shapard and James Thomas explain in Sudden Fiction International, "like the larger short story, but often more tantalizing, protean and highly charged."
Seattle-based flash-fiction writer Angela Jane Fountas describes the form as a "poetic punch of small worlds." The feeling and emotional power of a much longer story is conveyed. All this in such a collapsed space. How do writers accomplish such a feat?
In the introduction to Sudden Fiction International, Charles Baxter answers that question by describing what shouldn't be included in flash fiction. Because time and space are so limited, the writer can't indulge in long descriptions of human psychology or examinations of moral dilemmas and weighty choices. Characters don't have time to act, but rather, react. Crisis falls with a crushing weight. What people think about the absurdity of their situation, the decades of bad decisions, and character flaws that orchestrated their arrival at the situation aren't in question. How characters will react to their situation is. "Stress is applied immediately and efficiently to these characters; one might almost call this the fiction of sudden stress," says Baxter.
For example, in Ron Carlson's classic story "Bigfoot Stole My Wife," the narrator begins by describing his absurd situation:
The problem is credibility.
The problem, as I'm finding out over the last few weeks, is basic credibility. A lot of people look at me and say, sure Rick, Bigfoot stole your wife. It makes me sad to see it, the look of disbelief in each person's eye. Trudy's disappearance makes me sad, too, and I'm sick in my heart about where she may be and how he's treating her, what they do all day, if she's getting enough to eat. I believe he's being good to her—I mean I feel it—and I'm going to keep hoping to see her again, but it is my belief that I probably won't.
The action has already taken place off stage. The action now is reaction. No profound choices for the narrator, just his realization that his wife is gone—an irremediable catastrophe.
In Fountas' story "Above the Surface" in The Bitter Oleander, the reader joins Xiang and her family in the watery world of their flooded home, where they've chosen to remain:
The day the Two Rivers Dam was completed, Xiang and her parents breathed through reeds. Her father had sealed windows and doors, the circumference of their air holes. He turned on the faucet and they huddled together, waiting for their room to flood. Xiang spent the first month in bed, hallucinating, her balance off. The world felt soft ... Words came out in bubbles. She had to poke to hear, or they were lost to the surface.
Fountas drops the reader into another world where wild possibilities are allowed to reach their extreme conclusions, so the utter strangeness of the character's immediate circumstances transmute into a larger oddity that grows beyond and outside of character.
Likewise, in flash fiction, the physical laws governing time, weather, or gravity are frequently suspended, inverted, or reversed. In Dino Buzzati's flash "Falling Girl," a girl jumps from a skyscraper. Time stretches so that, as she falls, she's able to take in more detail. The reader is privy to expansive observations made possible only because of the stop motion of time. "Gentle butterfly," one cocktail-drinking tenant calls out, "why not stop a minute with us?" But the falling girl laughs. "No thanks, friends. I can't. I'm in a hurry." And yet, the street below seems farther and farther away. Subject to the reduced pull of gravity, it takes the falling girl an increasing amount of time to fall, so when she passes by the window of a weary couple who occupy an apartment closer to ground level, she's aged far beyond her years. "It's always like that," the man says to his wife. "At these low floors only falling old women pass by."
Stories like these, however, can seem so cryptic, so tight, that some have criticized flash fiction for abandoning plot altogether. But Fountas contends that plot isn't the purpose of this kind of story. "People don't read these because they want to get involved in a plot or learn more about themselves. They read them for the emotion or impression.
"Characters must come to life with a flick of the wrist, at a flash, presented in a snap with personality Intact," she adds. And with plot conspicuously pared down or absent and characters drawn quickly, other story ingredients, such as language and voice, become extremely important.
It's about voice
Ander Monson, whose prize-winning flash fiction appears in his book Other Electricities, argues that short-shorts are entirely about the voice—or should be. In Monson's story "Subtraction Is the Only Worthwhile Operation,” the narrator and his longing are evoked through voice:
This story is a reflex against grief: ... is black mark on paper, an X, a target on a map. Specifies where the old words are, the ones that you are not allowed on penalty of death to use or even look at. Why bury words in bags. Why bury variables in algebra. Why solve X for Y. Why balance this equation. Why story problems, codes, or mounds of equations, parametric ... Why tell stories underneath the fire to your brother who often does not speak.
In the voice, we hear the insistent syntax of grief in the recurring question, "Why?" It's character shaping an oblique plot. With a word, Monson demonstrates how such economy of language affords unexpected freedoms and malleability within the form. "The flash is an undiscovered country in a different way than other forms are. It doesn't have as much baggage attached to it," Monson says.
For writer Michael Martone, this means that flash fiction allows "the melodramatic, the coincidence, the striking juxtaposition of images, facts and details that then get under the reader's skin. In a short short, the bare narrative is the needle and the language and sequencing of images are the virus, capable of arousing or disturbing the reader." A strange but wonderful alchemy occurs. Martone suggests: "It's the reader who's in play, who'll be changed—not the dramatic character in the story." The rules of how a story works may be far more fluid than we ever imagined.
And whether these short fictions more closely resemble a quick combustion or a quiet unfolding of wisdom, editors and writers seem to agree that the short short can be just as satisfying as a much longer work. "It's like eating a tiny chocolate truffle instead of a 10-course meal—it's satisfying," Fountas says. "But it's a different kind of satisfaction."
While writers and editors may not agree on what to call these stories, or even how they work, they agree that they do work—accomplishing in mere paragraphs what some novels never manage. While basic ingredients of character, setting and plot may be manifest, they appear obliquely in a distilled, compressed manner and are rendered in lean, athletic language. The story's meaning boils up from implied connections; logic cues inherent in syntax, in linkages between images; and in a sharp, unified voice.
Thanks to a risk-taking climate in publishing and the efforts of innovative editors and writers, the form's exploding. Those who say longer is better or that nothing new is happening in the fiction scene are dead wrong.