Flash fiction is perhaps the most difficult of all prose styles. The difficulty lies in condensing an entire narrative into the required conditions of the medium, namely less than one-thousand words. With such little room to maneuver, setting the scene can be painstaking. Lucky for you, author Kara Cochran offers some insightful guidance on how to best approach beginning a work of flash fiction.
As a beginner, one of the most difficult aspects of flash fiction is just that: how to begin. How to tell just enough, establish setting and get right to the story. Jason Gurley’s “Flash What? A Quick Look at Flash Fiction” describes flash beginnings as “abrupt” and endings “sudden…leav[ing] the reader breathless when finished.” But creating abruptness that is intriguing and not alienating is difficult. In my flash fiction workshop, I have discovered five tips to create abrupt beginnings.
Start mid-scene. Think of the clichéd beginning of the ringing alarm clock: unless something fascinating happens the second the character awakes, why start a story here? Why not start at the heart of the conflict? In “My Mirror,” I first drafted this description:
She was my mirror. Dark eyes, long legs, stick straight hair we would braid in thick twin ropes. Friends, family debated negligible differences, but none of it was enough.
Although I began with image (see #2), it didn’t feel abrupt enough. What’s the harm in starting where the story really begins?
“They said I have six months to a year,” my sister told me. My heart clamored up my throat. We hadn’t spoken in years.
This beginning gets us to the central conflict, but didn’t feel abrupt enough. “Six months to a year” also seemed cliché.
“It’s a tumor,” my sister tells me. My heart clamors up my throat, struggling to get out, to recover from the shock of her voice on the line.
I’m still working on it, but a few things improved here. The story is about the sister’s reaction to this news, so present tense gave it that immediacy. “It’s a tumor” seemed like a less conventional and abrupt way to break the news. Hearing her voice on the line as opposed to “we hadn’t spoken in years” also keeps the scene immediate and in action. Which brings me to number two.
Begin with dialogue, action or image. One of the ways to start mid-scene is with any of the above three. Dialogue brings us into an interaction between characters, while action and image place us visually in the scene. My story “War” opens with action:
Their calloused hands gripped and shook as they pulled, heaving from side to side. Grunts were uttered and curses were thrown. Their red faces gleamed as joints popped, calves flexed and bare feet dug into the dry earth. It was the annual family reunion. The sun was high and shadows were beginning to form, which meant it was time for Tug of War.
Instead of beginning with “this is a tug of war,” I described the action of the men pulling. I wanted to put readers directly into the scene by showing them the men. If only there were a better way to include the tug-of-war information….
Weave in expositive details throughout instead of frontloading. “Show don’t tell” is an old writer’s adage, but is most important in flash where word count is essential. Trust the reader to discover the circumstances throughout. Per the example above, I cut the description of the reunion:
Their calloused hands gripped and shook as they heaved from side to side. Grunts were uttered and curses were thrown. Their red faces gleamed as joints popped, calves flexed and bare feet dug into the dry earth. The women watched from shiny plastic lawn loungers as the men battled. “Is it always like this?” the wife of the youngest son said, smacking her gum and thumbing a magazine. “I mean, seriously. It’s just tug of war.”
Here, we get some of those details through dialogue. We also grasp that this is a family affair from the wife’s descriptor.
Use only essential words. If the description only calls for a fragment, use one. If you find needless modifiers (the, and, very, etc.) remove or replace them with more useful words. Again, using the example above:
Their calloused hands shook as they heaving from side to side. Grunts were uttered, curses thrown, red faces gleamed, joints popped, calves flexed and bare feet dug in. The women lounged in lawn chairs as the men battled. “Is it always like this?” the youngest sister-in-law smacked her gum and thumbed a magazine. “It’s just tug of war.”
I went from 77 to 58 words, but maintained the gist of the story. The brief list of descriptors recreated the same action in less space. I also replaced some words with what I thought were better ones: “lounging” instead of watching, “sister-in-law” instead of wife of brother. I also cut out “I mean, seriously,” because it didn’t add much. More could be done, but this is a start.
Be epic. In longer prose, it may take just a paragraph for the reader to keep reading or stop. In flash, it might just be the first sentence. Start with something epic; don’t be afraid to make the story more outlandish than you’d originally intended. What if my sister story began from the end, where the healthy sister shaves her head in solidarity and the sick sister disapproves? What if the tug-of-warring men (which ends up being a metaphor for a feuding father and son) was actually a description of them gardening? I decided to try out the last example:
Their calloused hands shook as they heaved. Grunts were uttered, curses thrown, red faces gleamed, calves flexed and bare feet dug in. Mom had assigned me and Dad to weeding, despite that gardening was her forte. With each weed’s legs pulled violently from the earth, the silence grew.
As a beginner, I am grateful for having discovered some tips to tighten my flash and make my beginnings pop.
Kara Cochran is in her first year of the MFA program at Rosemont College. In 2011, she received her BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University in Ohio. After graduation, she worked for a nonprofit organization and attended law school for a year before coming to her senses and applying to Rosemont. At Rosemont, she is the poetry editor for the Rathalla Review and writes poetry, flash fiction and novel-length work. Kara’s work tends to be influenced by her upbringing in a Foreign Service family, and although she spent much of her childhood overseas and in various parts of the US, she has lived in Philadelphia for two years and is proud to call it home. In her free time, she likes to read, run, drink wine, go to the movies with her husband and hang out with her orange cat, Clementine.
This article originally appeared on Flashfiction.net