The Joy of the Unexpected
Sometimes, you read a story and you think to yourself that it's beautifully written and the characters are wonderful creations and the setting is evocative etc. but deep down you have a slightly sad feeling in the pit of your stomach because you know exactly where the story is going. Sometimes, you're proved right. But sometimes, the writer does something mesmerising and pulls the story in a completely different direction to the one you were expecting. Sometimes, this happens right at the end of the piece and makes you want to read the whole thing again to look for all the clues you might have missed the first time through. Sometimes, this happens right at the start and you devour the story because of its delightful unexpectedness.
I love finding these sorts of stories. They are like magic tricks. Done well, they take you on journeys which are surprising yet often deeply revealing. They can make you question your emotions. They can make you change your view of the world. And they can take you to places beyond the reach of your imagination.
For my showcase blog this month, I've chosen six pieces of flash fiction that all demonstrate this ability to surprise and delight. So as not to spoil their unexpected narrative journeys, I've ordered things a bit differently this month with the link to the story first and my waffling thoughts afterwards. As always, read and enjoy!
Sharon Telfer | Spelk
"There’s a weight to the petal, a rippled ice-cream thickness" - I love this first sentence. For me, it does so much. It is a beautiful description of the texture of an oil painting. The language within it is startlingly playful. And it signals to the reader that this story is going to take them somewhere special. It also seems to reflect the man's inner turmoil, reinforced by the image of "the wire scoring his ankles", the way his hands seem restless. When the attendant announces that the gallery will be closing, as a reader, I was preparing myself for an ending tinged with sadness. However, Sharon cleverly brings the pace to a crawl through shorter and shorter paragraphs towards a single word - "now" - and then launches through one, long breathless sentence towards her mesmerising conclusion that completely caught me off guard.
Stephan Meijerhof | Ellipsis Zine
Titles in Flash Fiction are so important and Stephan has cleverly chosen a simple title that gives absolutely nothing away. Instead, it stays in the reader's mind as they take in the first paragraph of beautiful description, almost idyllic sounding except for the "wrinkled and stinking flesh", "the pus of sand-ringed blisters." The pacing and structure in this story work brilliantly. The second paragraph juxtaposes the first - "a shower of sparks and molten lead" contrasted with "ochre fields" etc. Then slowly the hints start coming thick and fast. "It twitches" on the second read-through takes on a completely new meaning. The grim description in the third paragraph is so well observed but still, Stephan leaves space for a pulling-the-rug-from-underneath-you moment. I love the repetition at the end of "they bring me a fresh pair of socks. I can go all day."
Kyra Kondis | Matchbook
When the first sentence of a story is stunningly off-beat, it instantly hooks the reader but it also sets up their expectations of what is to come. And this story delivers on the potential of its first sentence in spades. I love the repetition of the "'let's say"/"let's just say" leitmotif. It drives the story forwards and gives it a rhythm like a perpetual motion machine. I love the splashes of humour - i.e. that Dave is the sort of person who would "drop his phone out of the car window to prove it wouldn’t break." And I love the touches of truth beneath the story's magic-tinted veneer; the hints about Dave's multi-faceted personality that reflect the colour-changing ability of the chameleon he is turned into by Dexter the Dangerous.
Tara Isabel Zambrano | Okay Donkey
Just like in Kyra's story above, this piece has a killer first sentence. When you start to dissect it, there is so much packed into just a few short words. We have time of year and time of day, a suggestion of place from the fact that the room has a fan and the choice of mutton curry, a fleck of humour but also a pinprick of tension, and the sentence as a whole is completely intriguing - I want to read on. It is often said that in flash fiction, every word should count and, in this piece, Tara makes every word count three or four times over. There is so much story in here - the "gravy stained" bird, the lunch disrupted, Papa fired from his job, a mother striving to provide for her chicks - and what's wonderful is that each time I've read it, I've found another hidden gem to unpack. The image that stays with me is "a broken egg on the floor, yolk clinging to the fractured shell"; the surprising sadness of the piece that lingers after you've finished reading.
Paul Croucher | Reflex Fiction
Taking on a topic such as anorexia/bulimia, it would be easy to fall into the trap of only telling one side of the story. In this piece, though, Paul has cleverly woven in the perspectives of mum, dad and doctor as well as the narrator. It is visceral, quite hard-hitting at times in its descriptions of force-feeding and dad removing "the toilet lock, with mustard eyes, in two swings." But there is also a sensitive unpeeling of the narrator's obsession, resolve and sense of disgust. I love the use of images - "a bone white body with a cherry red face" which serves a double purpose of describing both the lolly and the narrator's quest for thinness; "the doctor produced a plate of acronyms, ramming them down my throat" is such an efficient way of showing the doctor's professional remove and lack of sensitivity. All in all, an unexpected gem.
Liz Wride | Okay Donkey
In the first paragraph of this story, the narrator says, "I was at that odd sort of age, where adults were constantly pulling at the corners of the world." I like to think we're probably all still at that age where wonderful new ideas can completely take us by surprise. Here, it is towards the end of the first segment that the narrator is told "when people die… they become animals”; a wonderfully unexpected turn in the story. But, for me, what's brilliant about this piece is that despite the fact the corners of the world have been pulled away to reveal this parallel universe, the emotional core of the piece is very much rooted in reality. I love the details in the narrator's remembrance of her uncle - juggling oranges in the grocery store, watching the Superbowl; I love the narrator's "citrus-sharp" questions; the conversations behind closed doors.
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of surprising, delightful stories by Kyra, Liz, Paul, Sharon, Stephan and Tara, please let them know on Twitter or by leaving a comment below.