Updated: Mar 2, 2020
When writing flash fiction, it's easy to focus on concision at the expense of everything else. With such a limited word count to play with, simply getting the story on the page can be enough of a challenge without thinking about rhythm and flow, interesting word choice, metaphors and similes etc.
Some people will be of the opinion that the story is all that matters - create interesting characters, have something happen to them that the reader can relate to, or laugh at, or be surprised by. You still need to be clever with words. You need to use language to get your message across in a manner that is precise and connects with your audience. No so-called purple prose. But I'm of the opinion that, sometimes, the words themselves can be the highlight of a story.
If we think about music for a moment, there are certain singers who are often described as "being able to sing the phone book." They have such lyrical voices that it doesn't matter what they are singing about, you want to listen. They might decorate what they are singing with glissandi or appoggiaturas, they might sing falsetto or reach into the dusky depths of their soul. Returning to the world of writing, there are certain writers that could "write the phone book" in a way that many of us would want to read.
And, of course, when beautiful, lyrical writing is paired with stories that are unique, interesting, gut-wrenching or exciting, that really takes things to the next level - stories that will please people in both camps, those that are all about the story and those that revel in the words.
This month then, I've picked out six pieces of flash fiction that are dripping in beautiful language, garnished with metaphors and similes, and full of repetition, alliteration, poetical structures and dialectal tones of voice. They break writing rules. They play with language in a way that is unique and clever but never at the expense of the story they set out to tell.
Alina Stefanescu | Matchbook Lit Mag
The use of language at its very best reflects the content of a story. Here, we have a mixture of sentence fragments - "For a minute", "One foot away", "Not sweet" - interspersed with longer more intentionally rambling sentences (see the sentence halfway down that starts "You can smell his favorite bar soap" and loses grammatical correctness towards the end). The stop-start nature of the writing wonderfully enhances the stop-start nature of the scene, the contrasting emotions of hesitancy against the rush of this reunion of lovers. There is also that repetition of "stop" that almost breaks the fourth wall between characters and reader. We are being given a command as much as the words describe the narrator's actions. And then there are points where the language soars. I love "A skyscraping thought and a scratched cloud" and "his eyes surgical, dragging hooks along the surface of the skyline." They are wonderful images; carefully chosen highlights - too many in close succession would probably feel overdone. Everything tied up together gives a great sense of connection to these two characters but there's a mystery here too, the feeling that this is perhaps a fragmented memory or a dream.
Len Kuntz | Lunate Fiction
When I started writing, one of the things I was very guilty of was being a bit too heavy handed with metaphors and similes. I was given the advice to use the word 'like' a lot more sparingly. However, rules are made to be broken. In this story, the word 'like' has been used at least 10 times. Boys "shift like scarecrows", Paul's mom holds the cake "like wedding flowers" and shreds of a balloon are "strewn like rubber shrapnel." These work because (a) they are all unusual, unique and well-picked choices and (b) they enhance the overall sense of the narrator's character. Everything is written in an exaggerated fashion. Those scarecrow-boys are "filled with the clear smoke of happiness." Rather than just laughing, "their mouths make laughter." Later, "the sun fingered [his] eyes." The language is brilliantly inventive but it is also expertly precise. It is slightly gruesome, bringing to mind those sequences in films where things start to go wrong against the backdrop of slowed down circus music. And in the crux moments of the story, the florid language is reeled in. "I snapped open the knife then and took out each balloon with a muffled pop" - no ornamentation, just the action.
Francine Witte | Milk Candy Review
"Midnight on the moon is a lonely place, black as the end of hope..." There is so much packed in to this first sentence. Straight away, the lyrical tone of the piece is established as well as the theme of planets, moon, sun and stars. It tells us the emotional direction of travel. "Like a rocket that ran out of fuel and places to go," is a perfect simile for the relationship between the man and his wife. She is "a trusting thing". They are both happy. She believes him when he "swears his love." Re-reading that first sentence once I'd read to the end, it struck me how floating about in space on a fuel-less rocket ship would still be a wondrous thing - until you wanted to get to Marks & Spencer for some guacamole that is. I love how "the moon sees the truth" with "its squinty eyes" - suggesting the perspective of distance. And then that final sentence - not just "the morning" but "the white gauzy near-morning" (brilliantly lyrical, brilliantly precise) when "he will enter her, like doubt." Powerful stuff.
Farhana Khalique | Elephants Never
I love the description of 'baby elephant' in the second paragraph of this story. "Parachute ears" is a lovely image and "her parchment skin, a palimpsest of grey." I have to admit that I needed to look up the word 'palimpsest' in a dictionary. Chambers tells me it's "a manuscript in which old writing has been rubbed out to make room for new." Normally, when more unusual words are used, it can stop the flow of understanding but this is perfectly chosen because it adds to the sense of mystery. On knowing what it means, I'm immediately wondering what was there on the elephant's skin before. "She won’t sleep", "she stamps her feet, spanks my hands and blows in my ears, until I pick up my pen" - this baby elephant is a wonderfully original representation of the muse. Everything about the creative process is picked out in interesting images, how she interrupts sleep, how she fleshes out with time - "those legs could be tree trunks, a forest." And it's lovely that we end on a note of hope. "Something takes root." It almost makes me want to return to my dust-gathering novel.
Kathryn Kulpa | Spelk
This piece is so wonderfully lyrical, I think it could easily be formatted in a different way and we'd be calling it a poem. Take the paragraph under the sub-heading "Swallow", for example. It could be a four line stanza, the first and third sentences that both begin with "all you girls", the depth of imagery of tears turned to birdsong, "tongueless, weaving tapestries of woe." Under the sub-heading "Star", the interplay between "give her" and "let her" builds a rhythm, faster and faster towards that wonderful ending, soaring up and up before the last phrase - "couldn't carry her away" - bursts the bubble of hope. For all its poeticism, this piece still has a really strong sense of narrative journey, a life from girlhood to woman "[flung] into the heavens." It has a universality about it and a wonderful emotional core. Long after reading, I found the words rang in my head like a bell. "Can you hear a girl's voice?" - "Give her feathers, let her fly."
Mary-Jane Holmes | FlashBack Fiction
I love pieces that tell the story of a whole life in a few short words and this is an excellent example. A woman is looking back on all the places that have defined her existence and the way this is written is wonderfully playful. There's the clever dual meaning implied in "the tunnel births the train." There's those lovely dialect words for sparrow which root us in the north of England. There's a few words in here that most readers (myself very much included) might struggle to understand on first reading but these passages act like a blurred background to a painting, making the harsh facts of this woman's life stand out in a horribly stark manner. I really like the rhythm of the prose in this piece. There are lots of lists - "steaming, pressing, goffering", "Pankhurst, Kenney, Dunlop" - and the rhythm of them seems to reflect the steam train going down the long, long line and continuing well beyond the end of the story where "fish (ealpout, cod, whiting, smelt) have taken to spawning again." The first sentence is long and twisty and extends over the half-way point of the story. This is followed by the sentence which juxtaposes her shame with marching "the rails with the other girls" - a third as long. And then a third as long again in the "Pankhurst, Kenney, Dunlop" sentence. And then just three powerful words - "Deeds not Words." This is such a clever structure, spiralling us in towards the message of the piece before spiralling out again. There is so much thought and planning here that is invisible to the casual reader. It deserves a second, third or fourth read through.
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of pieces by Alina, Farhana, Francine, Kathryn, Len and Mary-Jane please let them know on Twitter or leave a comment below...
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