Flash Fiction: The Defining Sentence

One of the things I love about reading and writing Flash fiction is that a story can turn or pirouette in one sentence from a standard narrative to something that floats off the page and impacts the reader. These texts only become stories when they’ve been lifted by this sentence, as if given the breath of meaning. The story that I want to use as an example is “The Canyon Where the Coyotes Live” by Bobbie Ann Mason found in The Best of Small Fictions 2015 published by Queens Ferry Press.

The story starts not with a character name, but with a singular “she” who “lives near a canyon with four cats.” Not the most fraught first line, but serviceable to get an idea of character and a hint at the problem. Lucky for us, dear reader, this isn’t a normal cat lady, but rather a character that cares deeply for her cats as we soon find out they are a stand-in for the children she’s never been able to have. Four paragraphs later, we get a quick, but detailed snapshot of each cat, and we, by the sheer use of detail know that this woman cherishes her cats.

So a decent start, to an average story, filled with specific details, but what gives this story it’s emotional heft is this line that comes immediately after describing each cat. “There is a husband around the house, too.” I’m singling out this sentence, because it tells me so much about this woman and her love for her cats and the secondary role that the husband plays and has played for years. I know this couples’ relationship, without Mason having to say anything else. In some ways, the reader gets to do some much work by creating their own image of the relationship that the story could have stopped her and would have been a nice 100 word story. But the story hinges here and expands, making not only this relationship more specific to these characters, but giving us a jolt of understanding. We’re now privy to the drama of these characters and this particular story. It’s not just about cats anymore.

The woman wants to see her cats play in the canyon, but it’s too dangerous because of the coyotes. A lovely metaphor for children and also not a metaphor, because it’s important to the drama of the story. The husband is given a few lines of dialogue that show the reader just how secondary he is–he had become a means to get her children, but he’s failed, and he’s paying for this failure. He seems to know his role too, because his dialogue is constantly at odds with what the woman wants.

Referring callously about the coyotes, he says,
‘Everything’s gotta eat…’ ‘Including me.’
‘Have a Pop-Tart,” she says.
“Pop-Tarts are for kids. Why do we have Pop-Tarts?”

Here we jump back into the woman’s thoughts, and while her husband will never understand, the reader does, creating emotion and energy not only through the dramatic irony, but because we understand this woman’s desire. She’d like to get rid of the metaphor cats too, but for now that’s all she’s got, and this might be all she’ll ever have.

Well here comes our husband again, to open his mouth to show just how little he understand his wife. This is why that sentence introducing the husband is so important. Without it, we just have a lonely cat woman, who wants kids instead. Pretty basic, right? I’d wager that Mason felt a little thrill when she found that sentence introducing the husband, knowing that then she had a story worth writing.

He mentions that he thinks she’s driving herself nuts about the safety of cats. He’s too literal for her and he thinks if it weren’t for the coyotes she’d find something else to be frightened of. Well, of course, she would, we’d like to tell this husband. Her whole life is one of terror, because she knows she’ll never get what she most desires.

The husband reeling, tired of being so secondary and living with her fear, commits the final verbal sin by saying, “…we are lucky we don’t have any kids. I see how you would be with them.”

There are some many ways Mason could have had the woman respond, a lot of which would have lead to melodrama or a reduction in our empathy for her, but Mason walks the tightrope of stoicism and uses the image or detail to seal the story, to seal the relationship for us, when she writes that “She snatches the Pop-Tart from his hand. ‘I’ll make lunch.'”

This is meaningful because she is telling him through her action that he is so secondary that he doesn’t deserve the food she has bought for children she’ll never have. He’s no longer good enough to live within the bubble of her one desire. And here I wish the story had ended, because the last paragraph goes into an extended religious metaphor about a ripped out heart that I understand as a closing, but feel that it actually distracts, by trying to take this story to a higher literary plane that it doesn’t need because everything else fits so well. The snatching of the Pop-Tart, of all things, ends this story so well.

This story would not have resonated so well for me without this line: “There is a husband around the house, too.” Without the husband described in such a cold, secondary way, I wouldn’t have cared so much about this woman and her desire to have children. One sentence can make the difference between story and vignette, between a basic narrative and one that leaps off the page.

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About Tommy Dean

Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Avalon Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, and Foliate Oak. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.