Starting today, I am on the road for two weeks, during which posting will be light. But there will be posts. Stay tuned.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of two books for writers, Make a Scene: How to Craft a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time (Writer's Digest Books)—and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (BeijaFlor Books), January, 2008. She is a contributing editor to Writer's Digest magazine, a book reviewer for KQED Radio, and has been published in The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times , Marin magazine, Petaluma magazine, and Seattle Conscious Choice among others.
Burn these words into your consciousness now, and forever more: Plot and character cannot be separated. Your significant situation happens to or with your protagonist; it is her problem first and foremost. Through other plot twists and complications, the significant situation may lead to a whole host of trouble for other characters, but not at page one. Therefore, in the first scene you will introduce both the significant situation and the protagonist at the same time in one way or another because it is the reason for your narrative’s existence.
In a nutshell: Something bad/difficult/mysterious or tragic happens to your protagonist in real time action.
Hopefully the significant situation happens within the first couple paragraphs. If you force your reader to wait too long for the event that they hope is coming, you stand to lose them ever getting to it.
For example in Lynn Freed’s novel House of Women the first scene opens with a beguiling description of a man, called only “The Syrian” as seen through the first person point of view Thea, a seventeen year-old-girl with a protective mother. It is quickly established, through the lyrical way that Thea describes the man, and then herself, that she is a romantic girl who feels smothered by her mother. Significant situation and protagonist are introduced simultaneously: The Syrian—a friend of her father’s—has come to take her to live with her father against her mother’s wishes:
The Syrian stands on the terrace, staring down into the bay. His head and shoulders are caught in the last of the light, massive, like a centaur’s. He could be Apollo on his chariot with his hair blown back like that. Or Poseidon. Or Prometheus. He is the darkest white man I have ever seen. It is sort of a gilded darkness, gleaming and beautiful. Even an old man can look like a god, I think.
But of course, he isn’t old. He is just older than I am, much older. I am seventeen and a half and have just lost twelve pounds at the slimming salon. My body is curved and firm and brown. Until now, I have been plain, as my mother is plain, but in a different way. My mother is slim and elegant and plain. I have been sallow and lumpy and awkward, and too clever by half, as she says.
Since I lost weight she has become more watchful than ever. If a boy whistles at me on the street, she says he is common rubbish, he wants one thing and one thing only, and if I give in, I will be his forever. The result is that every night I dream of common rubbish…
The Syrian turns. He shades his eyes against the sun and smiles. “Join me?” he says, holding up his whiskey and soda.
Thea, being naïve, has no idea of the consequences of what “joining” him will bring. That she will have to marry the much older man, for starters. That she will become a young mother who is isolated and just as trapped in her new life as she felt with her mother.
When you kick off your significant situation, be sure that it directly involves your protagonist and reveals something about their character—whether you only show their actions, or you let us into their interior world. Your situation should challenge challenge your protagonist’s status quo. Plot and character are bound together and one without the other will cause your first scene to flop.
In your first scene you aren’t going to do much character developing, rather your goal is to introduce your protagonist as quickly and with as much intrigue as possible.
So, according to the rules of character development and motivation from the Core Elements:
1. The first scene should provide:
A significant situation that challenges your protagonist’s status quo:
The Syrian’s appearance as the messenger to bring Thea to her father is the significant situation that starts the plot and challenges Thea’s character, her future and her innocence.
An antagonist or catalyst to interact with: The Syrian is not an antagonist, he’s a catalyst—because of him Thea will change. Though Thea’s mother Nalia is not present physically in the scene, her mother’s wishes for her are, so Nalia is the antagonist—the person who wants to thwart Thea's goal of leaving.
(Read more in Make a Scene)
Q. Welcome on stage, Kim and Rusty. At AWP early this year, Brigid Hughes, the editor of A Public Space, asked me what flash fiction was. I thought I knew, however I could not come up with a quick answer. So I'm passing this question to you now: what's your definition for it?
Kim C.: Thanks. In September, I gave a presentation and reading on flash fiction, and I believe my definition then was something like: a brief emotion rendered on the page, like a photograph, or snapshot. Though now I believe that definition is a bit too elementary. I've been doing a lot of research lately on the prose poem, and trying to read as many prose poems as possible. I'd like to read everything there is about the prose poem and flash fiction before even accurately trying to define them.
Rusty B.: I think flash fiction can be a story under 1500 words, as often language-based as plot-based, which deals with the impact of a moment or a couple moments as opposed to a full-length story which attempts to cover more material.
Q. Interesting. So Kim, what relationship do you see between prose poem and flash fiction? And Rusty, do you think flash fiction is more often language-based than longer stories? Can you give a good example of language-based flash?
Kim C.: I'm beginning to believe that flash fiction is simply another name for prose poetry, although the term prose poetry has been around a lot longer than flash fiction. Baudelaire published a series of nine poems in 1861, the first to be named prose poems, and his collection Paris Spleen reads to me like a collection of flash fiction. In C.W. Truesdale's Introduction of The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry, he identifies seven different types of prose poems: The Object Poem, The Surreal Narrative, The "Straight" Narrative, The Character Poem, The Landscape or Place Poem, The Meditative Poem, and the "Hyperbolic" or "Exaggerated" Poem. I was able to relate to each and could adequately categorize my own flash fiction based on these criteria. Perhaps flash fiction is more "story-like," with a bigger focus on plot, yet maybe not.
It's hard for me to tell, when writing my own pieces what to call them exactly. I think my flash fictions are becoming shorter, and lately I've been writing one-paragraph pieces. So, do I call them prose poems? By default, I call them flash fictions, though they could probably be either. I'm teaching a seminar next semester, focusing on flash fiction; I found that there was no way to teach the class properly without discussing prose poetry, so I have incorporated prose poetry into the course, and lately I've been reading everything I can about flash fiction and prose poetry, and I have stacks of material to work through, thanks to the generosity of Robert Alexander, a prose poet himself, who wrote his dissertation on the prose poem in 1982 at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And of course, there are the anthologies on flash fiction by James Thomas and Robert Shapard, which I am a fan of, and discuss regularly in the classes I teach. I hope to have a clearer sense of prose poetry and flash fiction as I read more. But to put it simply, to me flash fiction and prose poetry go hand-in-hand.
Rusty B.: If I can be forgiven, and I hope I can, for talking about the work of my Night Train comrade and friend Cami Park, I think her piece from SmokeLong Quarterly, 'On Mondays Francesca Takes the Stairs' is a nice example of what I mean, even if I wasn't precise enough in my original phrasing. The entire piece is one long sentence that works so well in its cumulative effect because of the near-perfect placement of its commas. She begins the story with the quick phrase and the semicolon, and then each phrase after that turns in on itself, adding what I call forward-momentum details (since it's really not appropriate to talk about plot-points in a story like this) that augment our understanding of Francesca and the very simple, but wondrous in its implications, progression up these stairs. It's a near-perfect illustration of a moment, which is something that impressive flash does as well as or perhaps better than a traditional story. Another good example of what I mean comes from Night Train's Firebox Fiction archives: Lydia Copeland's 'In the Air a Shining Heart.'
And to get back to the question, in my own circuitous way, I think flash tends to come in two or three distinct forms: the traditionally-shaped (but shorter) story, like many of mine; the open-ended moment-illustration, which I think most shorter flash--less than 500 words, maybe--tends toward; and the sort of pungent minimalism affected by Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. Which is a long way of weaseling out of the question, I guess. Okay--here goes. I think flash fiction can be more language-based and in many cases I wish more of it was language-based. I think the work in the anthology PP/FF, from Starcherone Books, illustrates the various methods of the form better than I can explain, while a number of other equally excellent anthologies like the well known Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction anthologies approach the work from a more traditional view.
Q. Great stuff from both of you – very educational and thought-provoking. I wish we had more time to discuss this! My next question for you is, what do you like about writing flash compared to longer stories?
Kim C.: In writing flash fiction I'm able to indulge more in the moment, or scene, the image or circumstance, where as when I'm writing longer stories, I tend to think more about the bigger picture.
Rusty B.: It's incredibly gratifying to finish something within an hour or a few hours and either polish it for publication afterward or let it germinate into something longer. My life is such that my writing often comes in hour or two hour bursts 3-4 times per week if I'm lucky, and it's helpful for my psyche to feel as if I've completed something that might be publishable within that very limited time frame. Still, it's an odd week that goes by where I don't write one or two or three flashes, and usually at least one of those is something I'm interested in expanding into longer material. Writing flash is the way I work now, and I like it.
Q. In light of the above, what kind of readership is flash fiction aimed at?
Kim C.: I like to think it's aimed at everyone and anyone.
Rusty B.: People with short attention spans, people who spend a lot of time on their computers, people impatient with plot and tradition, people who don’t think they have time to read.
Q. Which is the best piece of your flash and why? Where was it published?
Kim C.: That changes in my eye from moment to moment. Perhaps my most successful is "Formation," which was published in the 2005 NOON and won a Pushcart. A lot of time I think my best piece is the one I'm currently working on, though I realize that after I get some distance from it, this is not usually the case. Like any writer, I tend to favor whatever I'm focusing my energy on. Maybe some of my best work appears in NOON; Diane Williams has had quite an influence on my work. She's a great editor--careful and precise, which I am grateful for. Also, I have a lot of work in elimae, which is edited by Cooper Renner, who is another one of my favorite editors. He's currently editing my book, Oh Baby.
Rusty B.: I have no idea what the best one is. I'm most proud of a flash I published in SmokeLong Quarterly, "Love & Murder," because it's a key scene in the novel I've been writing off and on for four years, and it feels nearly exactly right to me in both tone and character, and every time I feel like abandoning even the idea of a novel—I've failed miserably at three before this one—I come back to that story and say to myself 'no—don't let these people go—finish it!'
Q. How do you relate flash fiction to video games?
Kim C.: Yikes. I really don't. The thought of video games gives me a headache—the noise and stimulation, seems like the polar opposite of flash fiction to me. Though I don't really know much about video games.
Rusty B.: I love both of them, but my hand-eye coordination is much better suited to flash fiction. Having said that, though, video games allow me to fulfill my dream of suiting up and throwing down a nasty dunk in Shaquille O'Neal's grill.
Q. Aha, here we see a real difference between you two. Now, what's your advice to other writers who want to try flash fiction?
Kim C.: Read anthologies and literary journals that publish flash fiction and prose poetry. Study them. Think less about plot--if you're writing from the heart, the piece will come alive through your choice of detail, and the language.
Rusty B.: Write a lot of it. Write to prompts, write without prompts. At one point I wrote three flashes a week on a schedule, every week for a year. Do that or more. Read it, as much as you can find, online and off, good and bad. Send it out and get it back, I don’t know—all this advice is dumb, basic. Make sure you tell everyone in your life that every moment of every story you write is true: it'll make your family reunions and interpersonal lives much more exciting.
They say that great things come in small packages. Measuring in at 4 ½ by 5 ½ inches, Barnes' little book tells 18 stories that are both poignant and memorable. Barnes is a master of Flash Fiction, who says more in a paragraph than can usually be found in a page. The characters and imagery quickly grabbed me, and held me in their short embrace. For the past week, I read a few each evening like savoring a delicious bitter-melon dish, a Sichuanese favorite, before falling asleep with a heavy heart.
The stories have an intensity that surprised me. Frequently, the situations described are grim, sometimes helpless. In the opening story, "What Needs to be Done," a farm wife of 30-years has to balance the guilt of infidelity with her 19-year-old brother-in-law, against any hope of a moment's happiness. The concurrent senses of right and wrong from a simple heart reveal unexpected complexity.
Many of the stories are set in rural
Despite all their woes, the characters take the situations in stride, and Barnes renders this with authenticity. Presented from a number of different points of view, the narration never gets in the way of what is happening. Even those written in second person, which I almost always have trouble reading, came through crystal clear. This was another surprise to me – I did not expect a flash to have as complete a storyline and characterization as a "regular" short story.
I have not been what you would call a fan of flash fiction; Barnes makes me feel that should change.