B. Y. Rogers
Eons ago, a forgotten old man rested on crossed legs before a fire in a cave. Tears drew sad trails in the ancient dirt on his face. The children had ignored him, running away to chase butterflies or search for grubs and insects. The women had left to forage for berries and roots. Irrelevant to those younger, stronger, braver men in the tribe, he was told to remain when they left. He sat alone.
Nearsighted and too weak to hunt, he stared at the cave maw some yards away and silently wept. He was not what he remembered he was. Frustrated in his waning years, he gripped the fist sized jagged black and chocolate colored stone the women used to skin animals, cutting his palm in the process. He knew better than to grasp the rock as he had. His anger flared at the pain and he hurled the rock at the wall. It ricocheted, rocketing to the floor and skidding away. Miniscule stone flakes drifted to the floor, sparkling in the firelight.
He paused. Tilting his head and staring at the wall, he suddenly forgot his injury. Something was different on the wall, something not there a moment ago. He brought his face over the wall and stood there, almost kissing the stone. Then he realised the magnitude of what had happened. A revolutionary thought crossed his aged mind. He blinked and reached out with a bloody finger, touching the scar, turning it red. He retrieved the cutting rock and held it to his nose, examining its edge. He could smell his blood. He ran his finger over the edge. It felt the same. The tip was still sharp. An almost silent grunt escaped his throat, nothing more than a soft snort of eureka.
Placing the rock tip against the wall and pressing hard, he dragged it across the stone. A short, shallow line appeared, not an inch long. He grunted and did it again, a longer incision this time. Motes of stone stuck to his hand or danced to the ground unnoticed, landing on his bare, dirty feet. He stopped suddenly. A vision filled his mind and begged for life from his hand.
He looked out of the cave, gazing upon the blurry plains beyond, past the unseen grubbing children and berry gathering mothers, to his unseen, malicious brothers who would surely return triumphant after dusk. He remembered a time when he ate before anyone else in the tribe, consuming the best of the beast. Tonight he would again partake last, dining on skin and gristle, after the children and the tribal dogs were full.
He looked back at the wall, raising the dagger like stone in his bloody left hand, and carved another long line into the wall. Ignoring the pain, he gritted his teeth and dug another line, then another, again and again, this way and that. A mad, crazy urge consumed him. Faster and faster, his hand chiseled, up, down, side-to-side, the pain of his life emptying into the tiny trenches he created. He discarded that other man; that timid, unwanted member of the tribe that no one befriended because he was going blind and too old to hunt, giving eternal life to the hero on the wall who always killed the largest beast and brought home the most meat. The reward for such courage and skill was the choicest piece of meat, the raw cheeks of the huge, ferocious beast, which he reverently chewed while others watched in awe, waiting for him to grant permission to eat what remained.
Thinking he was finished, he stepped back and looked upon his story, wiping the back of his hand on his lips, tasting the blood. Once more, life rose in his heart. He dropped the cutting stone and pressed his palm hard against the wall until veins of blood drained below his hand. Using the side of his palm, he drove his red tears into his history. Finished and ready for death, the tribe would remember his name.
What the imaginary caveman carved into the stone was not the truth, of course. It was what he wanted the truth to be. He was the first storyteller, the first artist, the first writer of thoughts and emotions.
The art of flash fiction remained pretty much intact until such notables as Aesop converted the images into words and wrote them down 2600 hundred years ago. We do not think of Aesop’s fables as flash fiction, but they are, as certainly as any images carved on cave interiors or red cliff walls.
In the twenty-first century, it is important for any writer to understand what flash fiction is, as well as what it is not. Flash fiction is not a journal or blog entry. It is not a vignette. It is not Hemingway’s 6-word alleged ‘hint fiction’ trope.
Flash fiction is a short short story, generally confined between 300 and 1000 words, whereas a short story is defined generally above 1500 words. Yet, flash fiction, believe it or not, is a story; a complete, an entire story, with characters, with conflict, with resolution like any other tale of any length. Flash fiction must be complete within itself, regardless of the word limit. It is not easy to accomplish. No writing is. It is a labour of love worth every painful, coffee infused, bloodstained keystroke.
The satisfying part of writing flash fiction is the challenge of completing the story in as few words as possible, while embedding all the necessary elements and nothing more. The goal is to write simply as possible, with the right word in the right place within the sentence, where the sentences are in the proper sequence and the paragraphs in the correct order. Get in, then get out as quickly and cleanly as possible and make every word count. Every word counts!
There are several benefits of mastering flash fiction that translate to writing novels. Consider writing a scene in a novel. A novel is nothing more than series of flash fiction scenes. To keep the reader engaged, it is imperative the writer reveals only those details that are required for the scene and nothing more. Do not reveal the plot until it is time.
As every word is vital because of the word restriction, finding and placing the correct word in the correct place is paramount. Failure to do so obscure the emotion the reader should receive, causing the reader to become frustrated (sometimes without knowing why) and capitulate. A great way to create clarity and protect the conflict, to involve the reader in the plot, is to be aware of content wording and phrasing. Broadly, content words are nouns, main verbs, and adjectives and sometimes adverbs. These words are required to convey effectively an idea to the reader. However, there is a trick to using them. Some writers prefer placing content words or phrases at the beginning; others (myself included) prefer placing content words or phrases at or near the end of the sentence. Regardless, the writer must be aware of them. By extension, place the ‘content sentence’ near the end of the paragraph and the ‘content paragraph’ at the end of the scene. Writing in this fashion subliminally emphasises what you want the reader to remember.
For example, in the story above, I wrote, “Tears drew trails in the ancient dirt on his face.” I could have written the sentence this way: “Tears on his face fell down his cheeks.” (Horrible sentence, I know.) When you compare those two sentences, which is better? Which sentence invokes emotion? Which sentence enhances the character? Which will you remember?
Additionally, look at the last four sentences in the first paragraph. The nouns are children, women, men, he (referring to the main character), in that order. What if I re-arranged the sentence order in the paragraph? Starting with the men on the hunt, then the woman gathering berries and ending with the children grubbing for insects? Would that sentence order add or detract from the main character’s angst? Or would you remember the children searching for food, if you remember anything at all? Certainly, the reader forgets the old man as surely as his tribe forgets him if I were to re-arrange the sentences that way. In any writing, but especially in flash fiction, content words demand attention. Structure matters.
An easy place to get lost when writing flash fiction is with unnecessary or redundant words. Such words work against both the writer and the reader. The writing becomes burdensome to read and the reader loses interest. If a word can be removed while not weakening the meaning or emotion of the sentence, then that word must die. So kill it.
Watch out for phrases like ‘bright flash of light’ (are not all flashes of light bright?), ‘huge skyscraper’, ‘free gift’ or ‘nearly almost’. Such redundancy inhibits the story.
Regarding unnecessary words, consider the words ‘very’, ‘just’ and ‘that’, which is a lazy way of writing because it does not use the best word possible. Except for dialogue, where a character speaks using those words, find the best word or phrase to express the meaning and eliminate all other words.
In flash fiction, the writer dedicates only a few words to the main character and not many words thereafter to develop the main character. Think about what you want to say and how to say it.
These few skills (among many others learned from flash fiction) transfer into the larger field of novel writing. As you develop the characters, the plot, reveal every aspect slowly, showing in the scene only what is needed for that scene and nothing else.
Imagine writing a 500-word flash fiction piece, utilizing the following: a dead gypsy, a mounted swordfish, a bottle of moonshine and a 1959 ZIL 111. Try it. Try it right now, this moment. Do not worry about being perfect in the first draft. Just write. Let go. Trust yourself. Throw the black and chocolate jagged rock. Bleed. You will be amazed.
The benefits of writing flash fiction cannot be calculated. Like any exercise, you never know until you try.
B. Y. Rogers