Telling the Hard Stories
Updated: Apr 13
I've noticed a tendency within the flash fiction community to veer towards the darker stories - those with anger, pain, sadness and death at their hearts. This is probably not surprising since these are the sort of stories you can imbue with raw emotion, building layers of meaning one on top of the other. They need to be handled with care so as not to veer towards hyperbole. And there are certain topics that are more challenging than others, topics with a sensitivity attached to them, the sort of stories that come with trigger warnings.
Hard stories might cover topics such as murder, abuse, violence, rape, racism or discrimination. When dealing with such things, a writer should be asking themselves - 'how do I step back from my own emotions?', 'have I written this in a way that is sensitive to real world suffering?', 'is the narrative weighed down by the message?', 'how do I show both sides of the coin?', 'is this my story to tell?'
They are all tricky questions. Beginner writers are often given the advice 'write what you know.' But hopefully most writers haven't been subjected to the thematic content of these hard stories. Of course, the advice should be flipped on its head - 'know what you write.' Even so, it is difficult to know exactly how it would feel to be in the middle of a terrorist attack unless you've been there, to understand why someone might put up with a spouse's abuse etc.
Finally, that last question ('is this my story to tell?') is an important one. You only need to look at the controversy surrounding "American Dirt" which has been rumbling along just recently. Some stories need to be told by those who have lived them rather than a surrogate trying to put themselves in someone else's shoes. I see this as a balancing act. Ultimately, it comes down to the one question writers should ask themselves before setting out on any story - 'am I the only person who could write this?' And perhaps to sense check that - 'is there anyone out there who could write this better?'
The six stories I've picked out for my showcase blog this month all deal with difficult subject matter. Refugees, illegal immigrants, cancer, dementia, a school shooting and a runaway child. The stories are hard-hitting but also contemplative of their theme. They are sensitively written, carefully crafted and full of powerful images that stay with you long after you've read the final line.
Kathy Hoyle | Lunate Fiction
This piece is a great example of how to build both rhythm and tension. We have four, wonderfully staccato single-line paragraphs to begin with full of sentence fragments and lists. The following three paragraphs all start with 'None of them say...', echoing the title and drifting into a single 'Some of them say...' before six longer paragraphs full of 'there are's, sentences getting longer so we, as a reader, speed up in our reading towards that poignant 'I saw you once.' The language is mostly un-ornamented, real and heartfelt, emotions bleeding through. This adds extra power to the more lyrical phrases - the description of the daughter's hair as "wheat and autumn leaves and sand and winter sun" is wonderful. The cleverness of this story is how it weaves together past and present so seamlessly. You get a fantastic sense of this missing girl before she went missing. The clues to what has happened are served out like breadcrumbs, extra details to discover on the second read through. I love the darkness encapsulated in "The next train was delayed, of course" before the story unspools once more back to the mother's futile search of the beginning.
Alexis Wolfe | London Independent Story Prize
A lot of flash fiction works towards a jazz hands, ta-da(!) ending where what is going on is only really revealed in the final line. However, some of the best stories tell the reader almost everything in the opening few sentences and then use the rest of the piece to explore the emotions and perspectives of their characters. Here, we have the refugees' death horribly described right from the word go. Even in death, they are segregated - "a piece of scrubland". They are anonymous "under white sheets". Part of what makes this such a compelling piece of flash is that it confronts a difficult topic head on. The characters are not black and white. Yes, the father is unsympathetic to the refugees' plight but he is given ample reason for his perspective through his empty pockets and the loss of his son. There is so much detail in the sentence - "Shoulder blades prominent in faded vest, eyes fixed on horizon." He has lost weight, he is grieving. I love how the final two sentences contrast the tourist idyll with the "death-taking" water and "the rope my brother tied to our gnarled old lemon tree."
Mary Thompson | Bending Genres
Sometimes, it's easy, as a writer, to focus entirely on the overarching emotion of a story, be it anger, joy, bitterness or grief. However, human beings are complex things and we rarely experience the exact same emotion for a prolonged period of time. In this wonderful story, I really appreciate the flecks of humour - the "date with whats-his-name", the thinking it must be fate to have found the only copy of "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." They provide a wonderful contrast to the other emotions that bubble up elsewhere - the disbelief, the uncertainty, the emptiness. I love the unexpected onomatopoeia in "a sudden whoosh of optimism." But then the bleeding knee and the trip to A&E. It's almost like riding a series of waves, each one giving us a different facet of approaching grief. The choice of the repeated "let's say" leitmotif brilliantly enhances this, as does the choice of the rainbow image right at the end. Normally, of course, rainbows are a sign of hope - but here, it represents something closer to oblivion.
Susmita Bhattacharya | FlashBack Fiction
This story wonderfully deals with the ghost of a harrowing experience. In the first paragraph, we are there on the road as "she kept walking." Notice how in the first few sentences, almost every word is a single syllable, almost as if they are echoing the steps along the road. Every time we come back to "she kept walking", it becomes more insistent. And I love the concrete images of "her eyes crusted with tears" and "her mother’s fingernails black with dirt." The burying of the baby by the roadside is almost treated on the same level as the loss of the slipper, so it's possible to skim over it before realising what you've just read. The second paragraph then shows how the same woman, years later, has been unable to bury the past. Everything is like a piece of a thread stretching back to the earlier episode - "her thirst unquenchable", "her fingernails black with dirt" as she digs for her long-lost dolly. Beautifully poignant but I like how she is given a happier alternative existence in her dreams, "nestling her dolly in her arms and the sun is shining through the clouds."
Marissa Hoffmann | Bath Flash Fiction
In flash fiction, there is always a give and take between concision (on one hand) and detail (on the other). In this story, there are lots of seemingly trivial details that do so much when you start to dig into them. Rather than folding a piece of paper, for example, the father uses what he has to hand, a "flattened-out paper grocery bag." In a 300 word piece, it might seem excessive to give so many over to describing the action of folding the bag - "turns it over, folds it again, turns it, folds it, again, again" - but they have an almost nursery rhyme quality to them which lull the reader into a false sense of security. Similarly, on first reading, the "under the stars" at the start of the fourth paragraph seems quite magical whereas, of course, it is anything but. And with all these details stuck in your mind, the story starts unfolding like the father's paper grocery bags. I love the choice of the paper dolls as an image to represent the refugees. They are fragile. They hold hands one with the other, just like the gesture of a parent clinging to a child. The way they are brought to life in the story has a Pinocchio quality to it. In her interview with Bath Flash Fiction, Marissa talks about wanting to give a real face to these refugees and she has done that brilliantly.
Jo Withers | Ellipsis Zine
When a story is so short, the title can do a lot of legwork. Here, "Her first name" (rather than just "her name") suggests that she was normally known as Ms / Mrs ...; the tense is past so we have an immediate question - what has happened to her; and since the reader knows her name, "Janet", we have a connection to her that is already greater than that of the other characters. I used to be a teacher so a lot of the subtle humour in the opening of the piece brought back memories. I could picture Janet perfectly in her biro tapping and toilet smoking. The writing is so clever in making us feel sorry for her whilst also understanding why the other teachers shun her. And then a redeeming quality. And then the twist of "the metallic grunts [growing] closer." There is a wonderful mirroring between the first and second halves - the contrasting names the secretary gives her, the picking out of her good qualities rather than her bad ones. Like a lot of the other stories I've chosen for my blog this month, this story has an insistence to it created through the use of repetition of "the one" and the structure as a single, breathless sentence. I love how we have an imperfect character doing something heroic.
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of pieces by Alexis, Jo, Kathy, Marissa, Mary and Susmita please let them know on Twitter or leave a comment below...
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