How To Write a Flash Fiction Story — List Structure
Because of their brevity, flash narratives can have organizing structures that wouldn’t work in longer fiction. A flash can be structured like a cake recipe or a song. It can be built around the secret motto of a clandestine group, or it can follow a child’s refrigerator drawing. If you read enough flash, the structures you’ll see in them are as various as perceived shapes in clouds. I’ve seen flashes that resemble wikipedia entries. Others that look like the instructions you get when you buy furniture in a box.
One of my favorite flash structures uses repetitive sequences. Like the lyric or ballad, it has refrains and repeated verses. In one recent flash that caught my eye, for example, the story is structured around all the weird places the writer or protagonist (isn’t the first-person speaker of flash always implicitly the writer?) has woken up in her life–all the strange beds beside all those memorably unexpected co-sleepers. Another was about all the people who thought they were the very first ones to enter a busy downtown building early one Saturday morning–spoiler alert: none of them were.
These list-style flashes remind me of a song from legendary Canadian sketch comedy show “Kids in the Hall.” It’s about all the Daves the singer has known in his life. The video was hilarious. It emphasized how common the name is and just how incongruous the people are who share it.
I’ve been meaning to write a flash that relies upon a similar structure as these, one based upon sequence, list-format, and repetition. But I can’t decide which from my brainstorming session to pursue. Here are some of the possibilities:
** The thirteenth thing (a variation on what the continental philosopher would call das dritten ding). Everything described would be a different thirteenth thing from a single evening experienced either by different people or by the same single consciousness. The thirteenth customer, the policeman’s thirteenth ticket of the night, the thirteenth time that noise came from the basement…
** The last time a series of different characters thought of something purely euphoric like rolling down a grassy hill in summertime and what was happening in their lives (all quite unrelated to the activity) when they were thinking of it.
** An old check-out card found in a small regional public library, the kind that had patrons’ signatures on it kept snug in that paper pocket at the back of the book. It would be a memory cache of how that book struck those people–again, mostly through experiences having little to do with books or reading.
**A person who counts the number of pulls he takes of a cigarette. Maybe it’s an important cigarette to him, the only one he’s allowed himself of the day. Each counted drag would correspond to thoughts and memories appropriate to the chemical experience of smoking a cigarette.
**Incomplete tasks from old to-do lists written over the years by someone. This would be another way that the list-style structure could be used to reveal character.
I could add more, but I’ll stop for now. Which one do you like?
Having a good structure is not a short cut to a good story, but it helps. My goal in whatever sequential logic I choose will be to offer a comfy structure for the reader. If a story is like a house an author builds for readers to inhabit, the structure is the furniture. A list style structure is thoughtful feng shui. It’s a room full of comfy chairs for all the Daves I’ve known to sit upon.