Scott's note: Nick Kolakowski has a new novella out, called A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps. It's his first longer fiction work published, but he's been toiling away for years doing short stories. Nick is equally adept at longer stories and flash fiction, and through his practice of both, he's honed his craft. You see that in his novella, which is sharply told and briskly paced, a breeze to read. But here today, Nick in a sense goes back to his roots and talks about flash fiction, making us remember that no matter how long or short a tale is, the basic ingredients that make it work do not change.
Let Nick tell you:
Let Nick tell you:
‘Astronaut Michael Corleone’: Tips for Flash Fiction
By Nick Kolakowski
How short can you make a flash-fiction story?
Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Whether or not he really came up with that micro-tale, its six words hint at more pathos than some 1,000-page books. Read it aloud, and feel that faint rustling of sadness in your gut.
So I guess the answer to the previous question is “six words.” Maybe we should frame the query a little differently: how powerful can you make a flash-fiction story?
A Flash-Fiction Story is Still a Story
I’ve been listening to a lot of standup comedy lately. Some of the best comedians—my favorites include Marc Maron, Tig Notaro, and Patton Oswalt—can tell a devastatingly effective tale in two or three minutes. Over the course of hundreds of shows, they use the audience as a whetstone to sharpen their writing and delivery, until the tales are diamond sharp.
(Listening to standup helps with my own writing. It reminds me to craft my story arcs more tightly, and make sure they end with some sort of payoff. During the editing rounds on my new book, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, I would sometimes take a break and listen to Oswalt’s “My Weakness Is Strong,” which is a masterwork in narrative build-up, not to mention seeming digressions that loop back to amplify his central themes.)
Some aspiring flash-fiction authors, when confronted with the need to keep a story under 700 words, end up neglecting to build a plot arc. While there’s something to be said for a vignette or a short character study, neither of those count as full-fledged stories. Even if you’re limited to a couple hundred words, you should still aspire to give your tale a well-constructed set-up, building action, and payoff. Study how the comedians do it.
Last year, Ron Earl Phillips invited me to help select stories for Shotgun Honey, which serves up a regular menu of noir flash-fiction. One of the great things about the site is how it caters to many different subgenres: something with a neo-Western tinge one week, a sprinkle of splatterpunk the next, and so on. Sorting through those submissions has provided me with a little insight into what makes flash fiction effective on a nuts-and-bolts level.
Many submissions crash headfirst into the same issue: in their rush to put the story on the page, authors forget to establish the scene. Boom: people shooting other people in an ill-defined space over something and—well, nothing is made clear, even at the end. The other variation on this: the story joining two (or more) characters in mid-conversation, with precious little description beyond the dialogue—hard to pull off well, and many don’t.
Although throwing the reader headfirst into the action is a nice technique when done right, it’s disorienting when done wrong. Having someone else read your story before you submit is a good way of avoiding this particular pitfall; they’ll tell you (hopefully) if they don’t understand what’s happening, or which character is doing what to whom.
If you want a solid example of pithy scene description, look no further than an award-winning screenplay. Venture over to simplyscripts.com or dailyscript.com and procrastinate with the ones of your choice (it’s incredible, for example, to see how much the filmed version of John Wick differs from the first-draft screenplay, which is excellent in its own right). Thanks to the peculiarities of the screenplay format, screenwriters must do as much as possible with a lot less; scene descriptions are a line or two, action the same. And yet a good screenplay, like the movie it eventually spawns, is more than capable of conveying every ounce of necessary surprise and emotion.
Kill All Clichés
The brevity of flash fiction encourages people to rely on tropes. The serial killer with a day job as a cop; the Italian mobster out for revenge; the femme fatale posing as a meek housewife—the rejection boxes of the world are stuffed with their kind. Instead of resorting to cliché, think of flash-fiction as a relatively commitment-free test bed for your wilder concepts. Take those standard-issue mobsters, and toss them into outer space. (Actually, maybe avoid that one. I’m not sure how well Astronaut Michael Corleone would work out on the page.)
By drowning your clichés (or at least mashing them with other clichés and ideas until they become unrecognizable), pacing your narrative (despite any word-count constraints), and building to a payoff, you can craft memorable flash fiction. All you need is a great idea. What can you do with a pair of baby shoes?
Nick's novella, A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps, can be found at Amazon here.