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Becoming a Better Writer

Beyond Anecdote: How to Write Flash Fiction That Means Something

When an editor finds your flash submission anecdotal, you can typically expect to receive a rejection letter. But what does “anecdote” mean, anyway? Some say that an anecdote has flat characters, or an underdeveloped narrative, or that it lacks an intrinsic logic or natural progression. An anecdote can mean all of these things, but for me it mainly means that the story doesn’t delve beyond the surface, that it lacks staying power and emotional impact.

I’ve selected five of my favorite flashes to demonstrate how a story can carry weight and meaning in 1,000 words or less. The five stories I’ve highlighted are very different, but each goes beyond their surface narrative, creating something potent and universal.

Before you read what I have to say about the stories, read them for yourself and think about how they make you feel, what elements evoke your response. Then think about how some of the tools the authors use—language, structure, voice—could be developed in your own work. This, more than anything, will teach you how to write flash that means something.

“Egg Toss, August 1989” by Meagan Cass, published in SmokeLong Quarterly

This story has it all—vivid characters, rich setting, poetic prose—all of which add up to create a sense of loss for something that never really was. I love the sense of honesty here. Cass refuses to package things into a neat dichotomy—a glorified past and childhood versus a less enchanting present.  Here the past is more complex, as often is the case in real life, earning our trust in the story’s emotional truth.

Body language creates a sense of movement and adds to the story’s authenticity—we can see the aunts curling away from the father, the way the mother drinks her beer too fast.  Every detail counts, deepening our understanding of the characters.  And while the language is lovely, there are no throwaway symbols or metaphors. Instead, Cass focuses on the image of the egg—“whole, opaque, blessed”—to convey the narrator’s desire for his family to be whole.

“Out There” by Lindsay Hunter; published in the author’s short story collection Daddy’s and in The Nervous Breakdown  

You’d be hard-pressed to find a flowery phrase in this story, but isn’t the language brilliant just the same? Read it aloud to see what I mean—there is a rhythm here, a kind of music, with each sentence luring us more deeply in. Hunter begins with a declaration: “People burn cars out there.” Then we have a longer sentence that contrasts with the staccato of the first, grabbing our attention with the image of a father shaking lighter fluid over a car “like he was seasoning it.” What kind of father does that? we wonder. And what does “out there” mean?

The reader suspects that “out there” could be a metaphor for abandonment. It’s a place where things are left behind, like an old car or the narrator’s dog Jinx, who is abandoned by Pop and left to join a pack of wild dogs. Or like the child narrator herself, who also finds herself abandoned. Perhaps “out there” doesn’t mean just one thing—it also seems to embody the chaos of the narrator’s father, the danger of becoming like him.

What makes the story great is that Hunter doesn’t draw these parallels in a heavy-handed way—if anything, the deeper meaning of the story is an afterthought. Instead, Hunter focuses on evoking a sense of place through imagery—the choir of dogs with their “brutal chorus,” “God’s bloody iris” —which seem sprung from the language of dreams.

Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady” by Robert Swartwood, published in PANK

I love the way that Swartwood uses objects to tell a story, the way the structure of the piece leads you down the rabbit hole of the narrative. The mystery of Jason Reynolds builds with each found object—a plastic compass, a pack of gum, photographs held together by a paperclip. The ordinariness of the objects act as a foil to the complex character that emerges, a character Swartwood manages to make us like in spite of what we learnthat he’s a killer.

Swartwood accomplishes this by giving Jason multiple dimensions, by having him take a beating for his brother, by layering the character with each discovered object. The ending, which could have been a gimmicky twist in a weaker story, is a gut-puncher. While surprising, it also flows from the progression of the narrative. By the time we finish reading, we wonder if we knew who the “FOURTH” would be all along.

“Run for Your Life” by Kate Wisel, published in Bartleby Snopes

This was love at first read. In fact, I loved this story so much I couldn’t stop to think about why I loved it—it hit me on a visceral level, much like the moments of impact the narrator observes and experiences in the piece.

Part of why I couldn’t stop to think is because Wisel doesn’t let me. She grabs me with her first sentence, sweeping me along with her narrator as we run down Comm. Ave., until I feel that I too have glistening calves, “like nylon.”  Here, language mimics content—the pace of the prose is breathless, picking up momentum as we watch the bike thief from the narrator’s eyes, the way he springs free from men who try to restrain him “like he was dribbling a basketball through their legs.”

We only slow down to learn about the narrator.  Her backstory about stalking her ex is brief but potent. In fact, the narrator’s choices—both past and present—are what make this more than a well-written anecdote. Her final choice—delivered in a wallop of a last line—hits the reader with nuanced meaning and resonance.

“It’s End of the World Karaoke” by Ashley Inguanta, published in PANK  

Inguanta manages to build a world in only 663 words, creating a vivid moment in time before that world goes silent. The premise—hanging out in a bar and belting out karaoke until the Earth burns down—is a surprising take on apocalypse. The lighthearted details—nachos, taking a photo for Facebook—stand in contrast to the doom and gloom narrative we expect to see.

But Inguanta takes it a step further by creating Javier, the main character we see her world through.  Javier is what elevates this piece from a unique premise to a memorable story. He wants so much—to be kissed, to connect, to not be alone. The details about his past—namely that he only ever kissed one girl, and that she had a small breathing problem— make his story feel vivid, authentic.

It’s specifics like these that make a character universally resonant, not broad, general brushstrokes. While the world Inguanta creates is fantastical, the emotions she evokes—desire and loneliness—are our own.

Leonora Desar

Leonora Desar is an assistant editor of Bartleby Snopes. Read one of her flashes here.

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