Stories, stories everywhere! You hear anecdotes and gossip at the office water cooler, over the backyard fence, at parties. You watch conflict on Judge Judy and hear personal problems on the Dr. Phil show. Often you'll think, there's a story in that! Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Good flash fiction never is.
Such snippets can be used as raw material for flash fiction, but few are complete stories: most are more like anecdotes. Even after you've written them down, no matter how realistic they are, they will remain more like journal entries than full-fledged flash fictions and, therefore, of limited interest to readers. Good flash fiction is both compressed and expansive–interesting to readers who are strangers to our lives.
To become effective flash fictions, such pieces must be transmuted, must undergo the alchemy that turns basic narratives into the golden weave of fiction. You must find "what is best and richest, if it's for a short space only."
Expand the Boundaries
To turn journal entries and personal anecdotes into flash fiction, you must expand their boundaries. You must also write them in a way that compels readers to extend their boundaries. The more the reader is involved in the story, the more the reader thinks on the story, the larger the story becomes. Giving a piece the room to expand beyond its few words is one of the central tricks of writing flash fiction.
Good flash fiction gives us stories that are set apart from the everyday fare we're used to. Readers want something extra that takes them out of ordinariness and into the realm of meaningful fiction. Using four standard techniques, you can expand the boundaries of a basic anecdote:
1. Conjure the universal from the particular (Put Your I Out);
2. Imbue the anecdote with mystery (Don't Tell All);
3. Create epiphanies in the story or in the reader (Find the Aha! Moment);
4. Tie the narrative to a larger story (Take Up Literary Shorthand).
Put Your I Out
Although experience provides the richest material, you need to beware the trap of using first-person narrative. While the personal "I" does add immediacy, an I-did-this-I-did-that narrative can lock you into personal anecdote, blinding you to a larger, more expansive story.
Start by changing "I" to the third-person "she" or "he." When something actually happens to you, it's easy to feel an obligation to tell it as it happened. Forget that! Fiction doesn't require you to report "facts."
However, changing to third-person is not the mere substitution of "she" for "I." The switch should free you to see the situation with new eyes. You can always go back and re-establish the "I" if the story is stronger in first person. However, to free yourself from personal facts is to open your anecdote to a larger, more interesting story.
Changing the anecdote from first person to third can also free you in other ways. You can turn it from a narrative about four people to a story involving only one or two–thus sharpening the story's conflict and focus. Ask yourself what the essential issue is, what's at stake. Chances are, you'll see what can make your personal anecdote applicable to most people, and then you can tailor the story to that larger audience. Your story will move from the particular to something more universal–a story that reveals as much about human nature as about unique individuals. In what seems like a contradiction, by removing the personal, you can make the anecdote more personal to readers.
Don't Tell All
Once you've stepped away from your own experience, work to draw your readers in. An effective way to do this is to create mystery, not in the whodunit sense, necessarily, but by leaving something ambiguous or unanswered: leave the main character's motivations unstated until the final action, allow the setting to remain unclear for a time, or find that moment when the conflict could go either way.
Mystery always hooks readers, but only if they are sure that it is intentional. Be careful that the mystery is not due to a lack of clarity. What's depicted must be written clearly enough to resonate with readers–given enough thought. It should be a pleasure for the readers—not a job–to put the elements together and realize the revelation.
For example, Peter Meinke's "The Cranes" depicts an impending mercy killing (and possible suicide), but at no time does Meinke state what's going to happen or what finally does happen; he merely depicts a couple talking in a car and allows readers to pull all the clues together to realize– and fully feel–the poignancy of what's at stake. He allows the symbol of the whooping cranes to be a backdrop to the couple's story without ever explicitely stating the symbol's meaning. He leaves mystery intact through the power of suggestion.
Find the Aha! Moment
Mystery implies an aha! moment. You can further transform an anecdote by creating a dramatic epiphany in your story. An epiphany, a sudden understanding of what's at stake or of a larger issue, can be produced in a story's character, in the character and the reader, or in the reader alone.
In its simplest form, an epiphany can be the moment (often toward the end of a flash fiction) when the reader discovers that "things are not as they seem." For example, in Luisa Valenzuela's "Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye," the narrator, who is being groped on a crowded bus, retaliates by wiggling her bottom into the groper's hand. . . and picking his pocket. The end provides a surprising and satisfying "Aha!" The narrator knows what's taking place but the reader does not. Until the end.
In Alice Walker's "The Flowers," the character and the reader come to a terrifying epiphany at the same time. When the child discovers a dead body and the remnants of a noose, both the character and the reader realize a lynching has occurred, though it is never directly stated.
In John Updike's "Pygmalion," only the reader comes to an understanding of what's at stake. The Pygmalion character never understands the consequences or the meaning of his actions and how they affect his relationship with his new wife. Pygmalion's eternal repetitions do not make him any wiser, but the reader understands.
An epiphany on the part of the reader also occurs in Heinrich Boll's "The Laugher." The narrator knows all along, while the reader experiences the epiphany at the end of the story. In the monologue, the narrator is ostensibly telling about his life as a professional laugher. By the end, though, close readers will question the nature of laughter, to what degree it's socially programmed and when, or if, one's *own* genuine laughter is ever heard. The story expands to become an interrogation of both the nature of laughter and of the reader's laughter.
Take Up Literary Shorthand
Another powerful way to create flash fiction from anecdotes is to use literary shorthand: Draw upon what's already been written by making use of stories that have enlightened, amused, or disturbed readers for generations, giving your story more power, more "universality." Expand beyond the personal by tying your personal anecdotes to established stories. Look to myth, legend, fairy tales, or other literature for elements to include in your story. Using established tales, you can compress your story, and good flash fiction must be richly condensed in order to expand in a reader's mind.
Because flash fictions are short, you don't have a lot of time to develop unique characters. Characters from established literature can provide necessary background without having to state it directly. For instance, when Updike wrote "Pygmalion," he didn't have to overtly say much about his central character because readers already know that Pygmalion can only love women he creates himself. You can use the naming technique to take off on what has already been written and thus present your readers a story that expands in their minds.
Another way to use literary shorthand is to look for patterns that already exist in your anecdotes and tie them to patterns that have been laid down in literary tradition. Walker's short-short, "The Flowers," is an innocence-to-awareness story that uses a pattern similar to that set forth in Genesis. Walker's story alludes to a garden, suggests snakes, and depicts a child cast out of her Edenic existence when she becomes aware of a terrifying reality. The innocence-to-awareness pattern is an old one, and you can use patterns like it to transmute your anecdotes.
It's All in the Mix
Use one or more of these techniques to turn your anecdotes into full-fledged flash fictions. The best, the ones with the most resonance, often draw on several techniques at once. The trick is to use the techniques without seeming to do so. The best flash fiction flows effortlessly from the page to the reader's brain.
In Synge's, _Deidre_, Deidre says, "It should be a sweet thing to have what is best and richest, if it's for a short space only."
Her companion replies, "And we've a short space only to be triumphant and brave."
Apply these words to writing flash fiction. When you work to transform basic anecdotes into memorable flash fiction, choose what's best and richest in order to compress and expand at the same time. Your result will be both brave and triumphant. These basic tips can give you the courage to take risks and turn out powerful flash fiction.
From Anecdote to Flash Fiction (Exercises)
1. Think of something that happened to you when you were a kid. Write it using "I" (the actual truth) and then rewrite it in third person. Be open to the story's new mutations and possibilities for expanding its anecdotal limits.
2. Think of something that happened to you. Choose a symbol fitting to your story and let it act as a catalyst to expand the story's bounds. You might choose a lizard, geranium, or noose, but don't tell what that symbol's to mean within the story. Let the mystery remain intact and allow your reader to infer expansive meaning from the clues you provide.
3. Work with your personal story to provide an "Aha!" moment. Give it a twist without overtly stating what's at stake or its resolution. Intensify the "clues" to lead your reader to an "Aha!" Choose the strongest placement for the epiphany: in the character, in the character and reader, or in the reader only.
4. Give your favorite myth or fairy tale a modern spin by attaching it to your personal story. Have you ever lived the pattern of Echo, forever repeating others' words? Or the female Pygmalion pattern? Pick your favorite literary name or most effective pattern and write your story.
*"Make Your Fiction Flash" by Pamelyn Casto and Geoffrey Fuller was published in the October 2002 issue of Writer's Digest. It was also re-published as "Put the Flash Into Fiction" in Guide to Writing Fiction Today (also a Writer's Digest publication) in the Winter 2002 issue.