Trimming the Flash

The other day, Gotham’s own Arlaina Tibensky and Josh Sippie were talking flash stories in my general vicinity, when Arlaina said something that blew me away. 

“Flash stories are like bonsai trees. First you grow a huge tree, then you prune and prune it,  and shape it into a beautiful tree you can put in your pocket.” 

It’s the perfect way to describe writing a flash piece (a work that’s anywhere from 50 words to 1,000, but no more) because it heads off two common mistakes people make when drafting a flash piece. 

One, they write a sequoia. Three or four characters!  A plot and a subplot!  A convoluted major dramatic question! All of which quickly grow into a 100-foot seedling, which the writer then tries to prune, and ends up ruining. 

Or, they write a single reed of feathergrass, and find themselves with nothing to shape. 

A better approach is Arlaina’s — write as many words as you want about one character experiencing one change. Then, visualize the tree’s shape before you start clipping and trimming. Cut judiciously, so that you create space for the story’s true magic to flourish. 

In her flash fiction piece “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012),” Deesha Philyaw starts with a hermit crab — one story borrowing the recognizable shell of another —specifically, an obituary. Within that familiar structure, she tells the (rollicking) story of Mayretta’s life in outline—that’s the plot. Philyaw then wraps those bare facts in asides and commentary, in Mayretta’s distinctive voice, to reveal the story’s deeper (hilarious) meaning. 

Take the first paragraph, which reads almost exactly like every other obit—almost:

“On, March 14th, 2012, Mayretta ‘May’ Brunson Kelly Williams Bryant Jones slept away peacefully right into Jesus’ arms after a long undisclosed illness (and if that big-mouth Margaret Hill says May had a nasty woman’s disease, she’s a goddamn lie).” 

Essayist Bhante Sumano accomplishes similar magic with his flash nonfiction piece “Buoy” by focusing his story on a split-second, very awkward moment between himself and his roommates. He breaks the moment—five dudes eating breakfast with NPR on the radio —into increments, each with its own paragraph. In between them, he grafts on observations and reflections, like, “I sip my orange juice at the table while the room shrinks—wishing, in hindsight, that I had refused the breakfast invitation, slept in.” 

On their own, the external scene or the internal dialogue would be interesting, but together, they’re a slow-motion car crash. And the tight focus gave Sumano room for the highest-impact moment of all, what he wished he’d said.

Both Philyaw and Sumano’s stories illustrate another common mistake writers often make when writing flash — they assume, incorrectly, these deeply affecting, memorable, big stories are small.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty