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How To Write a Flash Fiction Story — List Structure

September 28, 2013


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.

From → writing tips

  1. I lean toward the “Incomplete Tasks” one. I think it would be interesting to see a character reveal himself based on what he didn’t do, rather than by accomplishment. All of them look interesting though.

  2. It’s not Daves, but Kathys who seem to punctuate my life! And they’re all just amazing and wonderful. (Not like the Sues, who seem to be kind of officious and unfriendly).

    I like the library card idea. Mostly because I find it so sad that we just get an impersonal print-out nowadays. I loved the old card system.

    • I know what you mean. I loved it when you could tell by the handwriting what kind of person it was. And you could imagine that kind of person reading the book, their reactions to it, what was going on in their life as they read. The material fact of the signature on paper in your hands is louder than radio, more ghostly than ectoplasm.

  3. I have to vote for the cigarette. When I was a smoker, the cigarette was usually to combat a stressful episode (or two or three..)

    • I know exactly what you mean. The smoker is also privileged with a unique ecology: he or she is socially allowed to lurk at the perimeters of public spaces without causing alarm. Perfect scenario for a flash.

  4. I vote for the drags on the cigarette, but a close second is the old to-do lists. It’s a microcosm of a life, a snippet, if you will. And it’s kind of sad really to think of all the things left undone.

    • Thanks, Heather. That puts cigarette smoker in the lead, ironically, at the front of the race. And I know what you mean about sad. As a list maker myself, I learned the hard way how important it is to list only those tasks you can actually accomplish in the time allotted. Otherwise, you’ve got an itemized report of your own failures on your hands–uh-oh!

    • imaginesstixx permalink

      Hmmm, don’t suppose the last thing on the list is to quit smoking? >.<

  5. The Kids in the Hall rocked. I miss that show!

  6. All these ideas sounded interesting and like something i would enjoy reading, but my favorite was the incomplete to-do list

  7. i like the 13th thing idea, but might be more approachable as the third thing? then could do it as the third date of the evening …. 🙂

    • That’s very true, and good advice. I have a tendency to overdo things. A story under one thousand words with thirteen items necessarily limits the total words each item can have associated with it. Fewer would be less seasonally Halloweenish than thirteen, but far more approachable as you say.

  8. These are all great! Excellent post on structure. So glad I found your blog! ~:)

  9. survivorscribe permalink

    The Daves I know!!! I love that bit. I just spent an afternoon not long ago introducing my daughter to Kids in the Hall. Loved that show. Anyway, I find the last scenario on your list intriguing. Whichever one you chose, though, I’m sure will be rich with images and metaphor. I continue to be drawn to the piece with the dogs. In fact, I want to go back and read it again right now.

    • I know. Kids in the Hall could be so funny, memorably funny–after many years and still funny as a memory. And thanks for the dogpark story love, Chrstina; that makes my day!

  10. Hi Michael,

    Great post – really gets the juices flowing. I like the democratic nature of these structures – any writer could pick them up and have a go. I’m a big fan of Fluxus who borrowed from John Cage the idea of using open and ambiguous ‘scores’ to make their work. Here are a few examples: “Exit” | “The work of art is the distance between your eyes and this page” | “Scream: 1) Against the wind. 2) Against the wall. 3) Against the sky.” | “CLOUD PIECE: Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to catch them all.”

    However, as you said, it takes a good writer to pull these ideas off. As you are such a writer, I’m perfectly happy to do what I can to make you write as much as possible. So: they’re all good, do them all; you know you want to!

    Best, James.

    • I’m a fan of Fluxus too. I met a museum director, Jacquelynn Baas, who said Fluxus art was about learning to be ourselves through loosely aestheticized experience. That sounds familiar to me. Sounds like life. Thanks for suggestion, James. I do want to write them all!

  11. sagedoyle permalink

    These are the Daves I know I know, these are the Daves I know. These are the Daves I know I know, these are the Daves I know. …sorry I just had to say that.

  12. The cigarette one sounds really good to me.

  13. Just popped back to this post for an update: I did write the cigarette flash. And what’s more interesting, I found myself departing from my list structure in order to complete it. The flash is called “Gambols in Counting.” It was published in The Adroit Journal. You may read it by clicking on it from the list in PUBLICATIONS.

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