Flash fiction and flash nonfiction stories are often called “Stories of the Moment” or “Postcard Stories.” Think small, but fun, significant, and engaging. The challenge with flash form writing is how to write a compelling story that feels complete when you only have about 750 words to get the job done. One thing I like to use when I’m trying to figure out how to do that is what I call The Five Ss. For examples of how to apply the 5 S’s sign up for my newsletter and a downloadable PDF.
The first S is Setting. Pretty simple–your story needs to happen somewhere. It can be as simple as a sidewalk or a bedroom or a park, but events have to take place somewhere.
The second S is a Situation. Something needs to happen to your character (or you, in the case of memoir). Usually, the way that manifests is that there’s some sort of desire that gets thwarted. Whatever situation you come up with or are remembering, make it short, sweet, and try and get it into the first or second paragraph.
The third S is Sensory Detail. You have three pages to make the world feel absolutely vivid to your reader. The fastest way to do that is to evoke the five senses. Have fun with it, get a little weird and creative with your descriptions, and see how much you can pack in. (And there’s a follow-up lesson to this point, which I teach in my online classes, and it has to do with how writers can determine which details to leave in, which details to leave out, and WHY.)
The fourth S is a Simile. This could also be a metaphor of course, but the point here is that you make a comparison using like or as. This will enliven your sentences and it will also make the world appear more three-dimensional. It will reveal things about you or your character that maybe you didn’t even know until you wrote them down.
The fifth and final S is the Shift. It’s the most challenging, but it also has the highest payoff. Your character needs to shift or change by the end of the flash. Usually, that’s an internal change; it has to do with whatever desire that character has that’s been thwarted or that’s been rewarded. You want to make sure that you’ve got that shift in there to bring your story to some sense of a conclusion and allow it to speak to the larger human predicament. This is often also called the “so what factor” or, in some circles, writers say this is how we take the specific and make it universal.
When you’re all done, first–celebrate! That’s the best part; you’ve written a complete flash piece, you’ve got a nice first draft on your hands. Exhale and then go back to the beginning. Try reading it out loud to yourself. I always recommend that. Once you’ve done that, read it again to yourself. Go ahead and mark in the margins with your favorite pen, too. See if you have The Five Ss, and if you don’t, ask yourself where you can fit them in. Conversely, if you’ve got tons of sensory detail but your setting isn’t very clear, consider the balance of The Five Ss in your story and make adjustments accordingly.
After you’ve gone through that, share it with a friend, teacher, or writing group. Read some great examples in online magazines like SmokeLong Quarterly or Brevity, and see what you learn. Take a deep breath. Let time pass. Return again. Work with your story until it feels complete, then send it out for publication!
Katey Schultz’s story collection, Flashes of War, was awarded IndieFab Book of the Year and received a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America. She has won more than half a dozen flash fiction contests, been awarded writing fellowships in 8 states, and is currently seeking a publisher for her novel set in Afghanistan. Her newest online program, Airstream Dispatches: a worldwide book club for writers, brings together a group of dedicated creatives who want accountability, craft-based instructional writing prompts, and the community of other writers to feel supported and “seen.” Explore her online classes, ecourses, and writing at www.kateyschultz.com.
By: Sarah Shoemaker
I’m sitting in my monthly book discussion group, and we are talking about Jane Eyre (every year we discuss one classic novel). The talk surrounds me, sometimes quite heated: what are we to make of Mr. Rochester? We all agree that Jane is independent, with a strong moral compass—so what is there about this man who is sometimes demanding and sometimes playful, who seems angry so much of the time (and who, though Jane doesn’t know it, keeps his mad wife hidden in a third floor apartment) that attracts the strong-willed Jane? Some say, “Sometimes people make terrible mistakes in love.” Others say, “Not Jane, she’s too smart, too independent, too morally driven to do that. There must be something she sees in him—she doesn’t even think he’s handsome.” (Though in the film versions he usually is.)
In all this, I am convinced of one thing—well, two, actually. One is that Charlotte Bronte knew what she was doing, and that we are meant to sympathize with Jane and Mr. Rochester. Does she not bring them together happily in the end? Is this not a clear indication of where Bronte’s sympathies lie? And the other thing is that someone ought to write Edward Rochester’s story; someone ought to help us understand him and why he acts and does what he does. The book discussion ends and I leave for home, but by the time I am halfway there I have challenged myself: I am going to write that book.
Easy to say! The first thing I do is buy a paperback of Jane Eyre, so that I will feel free to underline, write in the margins, dog-ear pages, and generally make a mess of this book. And as I read it—and re-read it—I pay special attention to the Mr. Rochester parts. I make flagrant use of colored post-its to flag noteworthy passages: pink for Jane and blue for Mr. Rochester (how traditional!), white for other characters, green for descriptions of places.
And then I read—and read—other novels by Charlotte Bronte and her contemporaries, and biographies of them as well. I read for language, for rhythms, for how people in early nineteenth-century England (and Jamaica and France) talked and how they lived.
After all this, I start to write Edward Fairfax Rochester’s life. And that is when I really come to understand that it is not going to be a piece of cake. Writing the story of a character who already exists on paper and in people’s minds is like writing the biography of an actual person.
Everything has to fit what the reader already knows—or thinks. If the reader is mistaken, the text has to gently show the reader how he/she has misunderstood. Even the slightest detail cannot be overlooked. At one point I am writing along, about to send Rochester to Jamaica, and in rereading the portion of Jane Eyre where Rochester tells about going there, I read a short phrase that had never caught my eye before: “When I left college . . .” Oh my gosh! He went to college? Why did I not notice that one little word: college. And everything stops while I research what college was like two hundred years ago. Or, more notably, everyone knows that Mr. Rochester kept his mad wife hidden in the attic. But was it really an attic, or was it simply a room (or a suite?) on the third floor, the same floor where the servants’ rooms were, but walled off from them so as to keep it secret? And, toward the end, when everyone who has read Jane Eyre already knows what happens, what’s to keep them reading? Unless of course there are things that Jane does not know . . .
Sarah Shoemaker (better known to long-time DWW members as Sarah Wolf) has been a member of DWW for 30 years. Twenty years ago she moved from Livonia “up north” to the Leelanau Peninsula, where she recently re-discovered the joys and anguish of writing a novel. Mr. Rochester will be published May 9, 2017, by Grand Central Publishing (used to be Warner Books). Sarah has just been invited to be one of 5 authors to talk about her new book at the national convention of the American Library Association this summer in Chicago!
My friend Bob, who writes delightful comedy, once asked me why I write dark fantasy. I explained it was because I didn’t want to gloss over the fact that in real life bad things happen. But, I said, my books are also full of hope and always lead to a light at the end of the tunnel. I write what I do because, for many, life is not always a bowl of cherries.
It sure wasn’t for a woman I got to know when I was a pastoral minister at our church: Mary Rose. Hers was one of the first funerals I attended at the beginning of this year. I mention it because this dark event yielded up a real insight.
Our church pastor, and my former boss, stood up to give the homily and I wondered what he was going to say. Mary had been hammered by almost unbelievable losses in her life.
Three of her children were cut down as young adults – one after another, in spite of everything the doctors could do – by a rare form of cancer. Incredibly, another daughter was killed in a car accident on the way to her brother’s funeral. Then Mary’s husband succumbed to cancer. Things looked up a bit when Mary’s remaining son and his wife had two little boys. One, again incredibly, fell to his death while the family was visiting his grandparents in India. Another died as an infant from a fatal heart disease. Mary herself was killed as a result of a broadside accident while being driven home from visiting her remaining little family in North Carolina.
So Fr. Mike got up and addressed the son, daughter-in-law, and their now three children who were among the many others who attended Mary’s funeral. He reminded us that throughout all the years of grieving Mary held on to her faith and courage. “It is what it is,” she used to say, “and we move on.” She helped other bereaved families, did laundry for the homeless people sheltered in our church, and worked hard as a volunteer for our Christian Service Commission Then Fr. Mike put forth a remarkable thought. “Our losses,” he said, “can define who we become.”
That took some unpacking for me. But it reminded me of when we were in Italy and I saw Michelangelo’s enormously moving statue of the David. I don’t think I’ve ever been struck so hard by any other work of art. Yet, I learned, the David started out as a fairly nondescript block of marble, with a crack in it even. The sculptor worked away at it, determined, he said, to release the form inside. As more and more of the block got chipped off, David started to emerge. I’m sure if that block of marble were sentient, it would complain it didn’t want to be hammered, that it hurt to lose so much of itself. But slowly it became transformed, into one of the world’s most awesome sculptures. The chunks that it lost in some way defined what it became.
Such an insight, like life itself, can be both heart-breaking and beautiful. The dark can bloom into something full of light – like Mary of Magdala found out, like J.R.R Tolkien wrote about, like a lot of people discover even in the midst of grief.
Or like in my book Blood Seed, when Sheft discovers “It is what it is,” and makes the hard decision to move on. He, along with his brother in Dark Twin, and his beloved Mariat in the upcoming Time Candle, work their way through the same feelings of loss that many of us do. But we do it in the hope so well declared by Julian of Norwich in her Enfolded in Love: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Vernie Dale is an established author with Detroit Working Writers, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Her first fiction book, Night Cruiser, was published in December 2014, followed by Blood Seed and Dark Twin in 2016. She is a former librarian and has a background in pastoral ministry. If you’d like to join her email list – this blog is an example of what she sends out – sign up at her website http://veronicadale.com “I won’t spam you,” she promises, and reminds everyone they can unsubscribe at any time.