Flash! It’s Fiction

May 5, 2011

Recently I finished Randall Brown’s Mad to Live, a collection of flash fiction—a total of 22 stories in a well-spaced 69 pages. The book has been described as “edgy” and “postmodern,” and both of those terms are understatements. The book opens, for instance, with a pregnant woman eating ants, a craving that doesn’t faze her husband, who runs to the pet store to buy her a bag of crickets:

At home, in the garage, I hold up the bag. A cricket stares back; all eyes, bugs are. Crunchy. Gooey in the middle. Like pretzel snacks with cheese in the center.

Late in the book, a man gets the sudden feeling that people are pointing at him, accusing him of something. Searching the Internet, he finds no clues but determines to fight back:

I get the sense it’s more ridiculous than horrible, what I’ve done, the bad kind of fame, but the kind that goes away, like colds. I’ll wait it out.… When I find it, I’ll post a picture on lampposts and store windows and telephone poles and I’ll write in black permanent strokes “I’m not him,” and then they’ll know. Everyone will know.

This is highly skilled writing, but for my tastes too surreal, so I can’t pretend to review the stories as such. It’s an occasion, though, to think about the nature of the very short story that we now call flash fiction or microfiction. The editor of the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and FlashFiction.net, Brown has pondered the essence of the form, blogged about it extensively, and predicted its “imminent rise to power.”

Though definitions of the form differ, all the ones I’ve seen are based on length. Perhaps 50 words is the typical limit for “micro,” a few hundred words for “flash.” In Mad to Live, the shortest story falls just short of 200 words. The genre perfectly suits our short-attention-span, click-through, multitasking world, though it’s ironic that the Web, where this kind of fiction thrives, is also suited for long work that might be too expensive to print.

Many readers may assume, as I’ve always done, that a story so minimal in length must be more like a still shot than a video: zeroing in on one scene, one moment, with little scope for development or change. My own recent, semi-accidental foray into the short-short form falls roughly into that category:


Each weekday morning when Dermot’s father left for work, he’d reach down to where the boy’s head drooped over a cereal bowl, ruffle his hair and mumble a slang farewell: “Later, kiddo,” or “Seeya, champ.” One day it was different. The boy finished breakfast and wandered into the living room to watch his mother and father loosely hugging at the front door. Setting out on a business trip, the man hefted his suitcase and called across the room, “Goodbye, Dermot.” The phrase, uttered through a tight grin, had such an oddly formal ring that Dermot cocked his head in surprise. When his father failed to return, joining instead a new family on the opposite coast, the words hardened in his memory like a thin layer of cement.

Skip ahead 27 years to a morning when Dermot’s live-in girlfriend Celeste stands at their apartment door with a carry-on slung over her shoulder. She is interviewing for a prestigious residency in a hospital 853 miles away (exact distance courtesy of Internet maps), and they have quarreled not about this subject, but around this subject, for the past two weeks, with the dispute so entangled in other matters that for much of the time he has lost track of the issues. As her glance angles up at him from under finely tilted brows—an expression that suggests a bemused take on her own irony—he briefly sees what she does: an unshaven, unshowered, slightly overweight academic holding a lukewarm mug of coffee that has slopped onto the sleeve of his tartan pajamas. An impulse moves him to beat her to the punch: “Goodbye, Celeste,” he says, with what he supposes is polite, forgiving affection. She nods, loses the ironic tilt, starts to speak and checks herself, and slips out the door.

Dermot returns to the kitchen. Above the sink a small window overlooks a courtyard where forsythia branches curl under a thin layer of ice. He has a sudden image, or fantasy, of his mother looking out a window like this. A flick of movement catches his eye, but when he tries to make out the bird or squirrel, nothing appears. With a jerk of the wrist Dermot pitches his coffee down the drain. “So long, kiddo,” he mutters, and heads to the bathroom.

[published in the July 2009 issue of decomP]

If we count generously, that story has three scenes, one in each paragraph, and the reader understands (I hope) that the first scene governed the last two, but there’s no character development except what is implied in the child’s progression to the man, nor is there significant plot.

Some practitioners of flash fiction don’t seem to accept such restrictions. They claim to be creating a story with conventional elements, just extremely compressed. Detailing how he critiques a flash story, Richard Grohowski writes: “Have the events in the story changed anyone? Is there a logical, or at least reasonable, progression from beginning to end?” (For more such theorizing about the way flash works, see the Flash Craft section of FlashFiction.net.)

Taking Brown’s stories as an example, some plot, or concentrated action at least—progression from beginning to end—does seem achievable. His story “Early Man” starts with a boy and his father finding a big wad of cash on the ground, and then proceeds to detail what they do with it, ending on the fourth page when the money is gone. Another story, “Good Kid,” is all action, its four pages describing an attempted robbery at a store and the fight that ensues as a boy and his grandfather resist the bad guys.

As for character change, there can be hints of that. “Good Kid” ends with a projection into the kid’s future, telling us that when bad dreams come, the boy will fight them off with memories of the moment of triumph with his grandfather.

Still, I don’t believe that real character development—important changes in essential traits or understandings—can be achieved in a couple of hundred words. Nor do I think that ultra-compressed plots can have the same kind of arc as a longer story or novel in which the characters’ motivation is integral to the buildup, the complications, the climax, and the dénouement.

If anyone can find a strong example contradicting these views, please share.